Did a Surveillance Drone Help in the Arrest of a North Dakota Farmer?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 12 2012 3:03 PM

Did a Surveillance Drone Help in the Arrest of a North Dakota Farmer?

Alleging “outrageous governmental conduct,” the first American arrested with the help of a surveillance drone attended a court hearing yesterday as part of an effort to have the charges against him dismissed.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

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

In the small town of Lakota, N.D., farmer Rodney Brossart appeared before a district judge with his wife and their four children over a bizarre sequence of events that occurred last year—beginning with accusations of cattle theft and ending with a military-style Predator spy drone being deployed alongside an elite SWAT team.

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Brossart and his family face various criminal charges that relate to a conflict they got into with law enforcement officers after six cows from a neighboring farm wandered onto their land. Brossart declined to return the cattle to their owner until he was paid for the feed they had consumed. When police got involved, three of Brossart’s sons allegedly chased the officers away with guns. In the end, a drone was deployed, Rodney Brossart was repeatedly tased and then arrested, and the cows were handed over.

Yesterday, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke reportedly told the court the police had called in the Homeland Security drone after a federal agent offered them one. Janke said he had viewed a laptop screen showing an aerial view of the Brossart farmstead. But he added that viewing the drone footage didn’t determine his actions on the day—in line with the state attorney’s claim in previously filed court documents that “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.”

The leader of the SWAT team deployed to help arrest Brossart told USNews.com last month that the drone had been called in to help make the arrest safer for both Brossart and the force. He added that the SWAT team, based out of Grand Forks, N.D., had an agreement with the Department of Homeland security to use Predator drones for three years and had been trained in how to use the aircraft, which can fly at heights of up to 25,000 feet for 20 hours at a time.

But Bruce Quick, Rodney Brossart’s lawyer, is arguing that “the warrantless use of unmanned surveillance aircraft” was unlawful on Fourth Amendment grounds. Quick wants the case dropped, citing “outrageous governmental conduct, unlawful surveillance, illegal seizures and searches, unconstitutional application of North Dakota law, vindictive prosecution, and other statutory and constitutional injury.”

The judge is expected to rule within 30 days on the motions to dismiss the charges.

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

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