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Law Enforcement Response to Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Incidents

UAS or more commonly referred to as “drones” are now part of our lives in one fashion or another and many don’t even realize it. The aircraft portion of the UAS is what most people are familiar with when in fact all associated components of the UAS such as the controlling station, cameras and other parts are also part of the entire “system”.

Public opinion is actively being molded into acceptance of this technology by exciting news stories about packages being delivered to your doorstep, life-saving organ transplants sent to operating facilities, and burritos delivered to you at the beach. Drones flying through your neighborhood will soon become the norm soon.

So, what happens when someone complains to law enforcement about a drone operator flying too close to a house or property? This discussion will not include the property owner’s airspace rights since there are no clearly defined laws that have been tested in the Courts like other boundaries have.

· The responding law enforcement officer must meet with the person making the complaint about the activity and understand what the concern may be.

· Is the drone being operated in a careless or reckless manner?

· Is the drone being used to look over privacy partitions or look into windows?

· Has the person making the complaint approached the operator to discuss the matter?

The mere presence of a drone flying is not necessarily violating Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), a violation of an ordinance or State law.

We expect a lot from our first responders but unfortunately, officer exposure to drone activity is still unfolding. Most responding officers will most likely not understand what rules apply to drone operations. Future recommendations for implementing officer training regarding what appropriate actions to take when investigating drone complaints will be discussed in a later post.

So, for now, we go back to the original premise of this post. If we think about why an officer may be called to a particular complaint, the answer should be broken down into its basic form. What exactly is the issue? The drone being used in a nefarious manner is merely a tool to further the activity. There are laws against peeping Toms, assault, harassment and other similar activities.

Here’s a case that can easily explain how an officer can respond to a drone complaint:

Neighbor A is on his property flying his drone along the property boundary with Neighbor B. Neighbor B is also in his backyard and calls the police because he feels Neighbor A is harassing him by intentionally flying his drone directly at him then turning away at the last minute.

Neighbor A is performing maneuvers with his drone and subsequently loses control and it unintentionally hits Neighbor B causing injury. This is an aggravated assault because the drone in this case would be considered a weapon and Neighbor B sustained injuries. Additionally, because of his behavior leading up to the injury Neighbor A could face charges of harassment. Neighbor B would have to describe exactly how Neighbor A was flying his drone in a harassing manner.

The responding officer speaks with Neighbor A who stated he recently received his drone and was in his yard to practice flying. Neighbor A stated he was unaware Neighbor B was in his backyard and didn’t feel he was harassing him. The officer in this case would be taking a report and would handle the incident just as any other aggravated assault noting that the weapon used in the assault in this case was the drone.

The information taken at the scene should include all personally identifying details of the Neighbor A in addition to noting the serial number of the aircraft and controller portions of the UAS system. Good police work should tie Neighbor A to the operation of the drone through statements, witnesses, fingerprints, or other investigative means.

The UAS and all associated system components would be seized as evidence and photographed.

While the officer may not know it at the time, the very information collected in an investigative report would be the same information that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would need to proceed with an investigation for any violation of the FARs. The FAA has dedicated agents that are assigned to provide information and guidance to law enforcement through the Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP). Although their resources are stretched a little thin, LEAP agents provide law enforcement partners with a wealth of information and are a valuable resource when developing training programs for officers. See more information regarding the FAA LEAP program.

Following notification, a LEAP agent would meet with the police department and gather pertinent facts which would be used by the FAA to support administrative charges against neighbor A. The LEAP agent would determine the type of operation was being conducted, if the aircraft was registered, if the pilot was a hobbyist or if he was required to comply with FARs, and more specifically Part 107 pilot which cover drone pilots. The LEAP agent would also want to know the severity of the injuries due to FAA reporting requirements.

The FAA tracks incidents such as this once they are made aware of them. This important for a couple of reasons such as tracking repeated violations by the same pilot, or the same pilot operating in different locations intentionally violating FARs. The discipline administered can range from a warning letter to certificate suspensions to heavy fines. If the violation is significant enough, the FAA will refer the violator to the US Department of Justice for prosecution. Something like this would be due to gross or intentional negligence.

Moving on from issues that involve law enforcement involvement, operators in the industry have a responsibility as professionals to engage the public in a polite manner to avoid escalation needlessly.

Professionals using drones for real estate inspections, surveys, photography, or other jobs should be drone ambassadors when they are in the field conducting their flights. While not required, reaching out to the local law enforcement station would help lower the concern if notified ahead of time. By building these relationship before an operator speaks with an officer in the field, will go a long way in facilitating acceptance of the job requirements.

Another suggestion is to wear high visibility company vests that have logos that are clean and clearly visible. When approached by a neighborhood resident, be courteous and respectful and try to educate the homeowner on what you are doing. You may even get additional business out of this. The ability to educate those around you will go a long way in developing acceptance of drone use in the future.

Unfortunately, sometimes people can be unreasonable, and this is when law enforcement gets involved. Proactively establishing conversations ahead of time will put you in a better position when/if this occurs.

Contact Leach Strategic Partners for further discussion on this topic or for other questions your agency may have regarding the use of UAS and your mission.

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