What a Cattle-Theft Case Could Mean for U.S. Law Enforcement Use of Drones

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 4 2012 5:43 PM

What a Cattle-Theft Case Could Mean for U.S. Law Enforcement Use of Drones

It was a strange and historic moment when North Dakota police decided to call in an unmanned Predator surveillance drone over a farmers’ dispute about animals. Now a court case in the small town of Lakota has become the primary testing ground for the use of unmanned aircraft by law enforcement across America.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

The odd episode began in June last year when six cows wandered onto land owned by Rodney Brossart, who declined to return them to their owner until he was paid for the feed the cattle had consumed.


When police tried to get involved, Brossart’s family—who “prefer to limit their contact with governmental actors,” according to a court brief—allegedly chased the officers away with guns. Ultimately, a military-grade Department of Homeland Security-owned unmanned drone was deployed (for reasons that are disputed),  and a local SWAT team called in. Brossart became the first American to be arrested with the assistance of a drone—and the six cows were returned.

Now Brossart wants the case against him—which centers on allegations of cattle theft—dismissed. Court documents (see below) show that he and five of his family members are alleging “outrageous governmental conduct, unlawful surveillance, illegal seizures and searches, unconstitutional application of North Dakota law, vindictive prosecution, and other statutory and constitutional injury.”

In a brief authored by Brossart’s attorney, Bruce Quick, one officer is accused of behaving like a “water-boarding interrogator” for using a Taser on Brossart while “violently convulsed in a puddle of water.” Quick also describes how a “commando team” of police searched the Brossarts’ ranch for the cows and “occupied” the farm without a warrant.

The most interesting element, however, is the use of the so-called “spy plane” to conduct surveillance.

Quick is arguing that “the warrantless use of unmanned surveillance aircraft” was unlawful on Fourth Amendment grounds. He points to the United States Supreme Court judgment in Kyllo v. United States, which held that obtaining information by sense-enhancing technology not available for general public will be subject to constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The police “dispatched unmanned aerial surveillance to spy on the Brossart family, and to collect ‘intelligence’ data,” Quick writes. “The unmanned aircraft was dispatched without judicial approval or a warrant. The unmanned aircraft was not visible or detectable by ordinary observation. Armed with the intelligence data from the unmanned craft and a search warrant, commando-styled police officers infiltrated the Brossart ranch, searching all buildings, tree rows, shelter belts, vehicles, and equipment.”

But North Dakota is playing down the role of the drone, claiming it is insignificant. In a response to Brossart’s motion to dismiss, Nelson County State’s Attorney Douglas Manbeck argues, “The use of unmanned surveillance aircraft is a non-issue in this case because they were not used in any investigative manner to determine if a crime had been committed. There is, furthermore, no existing case law that bars their use in investigating crimes.”

Predators, which can fly at heights of up to 25,000 feet for 20 hours at a time, are most commonly associated with controversial military actions in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen—but are also used domestically for border surveillance by the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection agency at a cost of about $3,000 per hour. The SWAT team that called in the drone used in the Brossart arrest, based out of Grand Forks, N.D., says that it has had an agreement with the DHS to use Predators for three years and called one in this case for safety reasons.

Currently, about 300 law enforcement agencies and research institutions have temporary licenses to fly drones, according to information published in April by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. How they can be used by police in the future could in part be decided by a Lakota court jury in June, when the Brossart trial is scheduled to begin.

Below, you'll find court documents related to the case.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.