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.
The head of the Grand Forks SWAT team, Bill Macki, said that with a population of less than 70,000, it doesn’t make sense for the police department to own a helicopter, but the ability to call in a drone when necessary can provide a similar purpose.
“The terrain we were working with was very large and agricultural—several hundred acres of very flat farmland made it difficult to set up a perimeter to ensure people didn’t make it off the property,” he says. “I think drones are definitely a useful tool, their effectiveness in rural operations is exceptional, they keep tactical operations as safe as possible.”
Macki is confident his team is trained to legally use drones. “We’ve had a relationship with Predator operations for three years, we’ve provided training for them and received training on the basic capabilities of the Predator,” he says. “We’ve established a relationship with Homeland Security. Through that relationship, we’ve learned the drones’ capabilities and when we can or cannot use a drone.”
A recent US News and World article reports there will soon be at least 30,000 drones operating legally within US borders. Many of these will serve vital functions such as border patrol and detecting forest fires. But where does the use of these drones end?
A quick look at the “About” section of the Department of Homeland Security’s web site reveals its mandated mission:
The Department of Homeland Security has a vital mission: to secure the nation from the many threats we face. This requires the dedication of more than 240,000 employees in jobs that range from aviation and border security to emergency response, from cybersecurity analyst to chemical facility inspector. Our duties are wide-ranging, but our goal is clear – keeping America safe.
Thoughtful citizens are rightfully questioning the scope of Homeland Security’s reach. Most of us welcomed this agency when it seemed its purpose was to prevent foreign terrorists from attacking US citizens. Now after a little over a decade of existence, many fear its reach has extended much too far into local matters that should be handled on a local level.
©2012 Off the Grid News