LAKOTA, North Dakota – Rodney Brossart from the tiny town of Lakota, N.D has come to national attention with the revelation he is the first American citizen to be arrested with the help of a Predator surveillance drone. His case has also become the platform for legal experts and law enforcement to debate the legality of the use of unmanned drones in civilian cases.
Brossat, an alleged anti-government “sovereignist,” became a part of this drama when several cows wandered onto his 3,000 acre farm. Believing he should be able to keep the cows, Brossart, along with two family members, forced police off his land at gun point.
Following a 16-hour standoff, the SWAT team from the Grand Forks police department obtained a search warrant. Nothing unusual so far, that is until they decided to call in a favor from Homeland Security and employ their Predator unmanned aerial vehicle to pinpoint Brossart’s location on the ranch. He was then arrested on charges of terrorizing a sheriff, theft, criminal mischief, and other charges.
In spite of the charges, the North Dakota rancher isn’t giving up without a legal fight. “We’re not laying over here playing dead on it,” says Brossart, who is scheduled to appear in court on April 30. “We’re dealing with it, we’ve got a couple different motions happening in court fighting [the drone use].”
Douglas Manbeck, representing the state of North Dakota, says the drone was used after warrants were already issued. “The alleged crimes were already committed long before a drone was even thought of being used,” he says. “It was only used to help assure there weren’t weapons and to make [the arrest] safer for both the Brossarts and law enforcement. I know it’s a touchy subject for anyone to feel that drones are in the air watching them, but I don’t think there was any misuse in this case.”
John Villasenor, of the Brookings Institution, says he’d be “floored” if the court throws the case out. He contends the use of a drone is no different than using a helicopter. “It may have been the first time a drone was used to make an arrest, but it’s certainly not going to be the last,” said Villasenors. “I would be very surprised if someone were able to successfully launch a legal challenge in Brossart’s case.”
Come summer, there may be many more cases like Brossart’s because on May 14 the government must begin issuing permits for drone use by law enforcement. There are currently about 300 law enforcement agencies and research institutions—including the Grand Forks SWAT team that have temporary licenses from the FAA to use drones. Currently, drones are most commonly used by Homeland Security along America’s borders.