The lawyer for the first American arrested with the help of a pilotless drone says "guerilla-like police tactics" were used to make the arrest.
Lakota, N.D., resident Rodney Brossart was arrested last June after a bizarre 16-hour standoff with police in which Brossart was repeatedly tased after allegedly threatening to kill officers who came onto his property. After the standoff, a SWAT team from nearby Grand Forks called in a Predator drone owned by the Department of Homeland Security to determine that they could safely arrest Brossart. He and police were sparring over the ownership of six cows that had wandered onto his farm.
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Bruce Quick, Brossart's lawyer, said in court documents obtained by U.S. News that the use of the drone was "outrageous government conduct," and that the drone was "dispatched without judicial approval or a warrant."
In a separate interview, Quick says the case was mishandled from the start, and that police shouldn't have arrested Brossart in the first place. The use of the Predator drone was the last in a long-line of police misbehavior, he says.
"The whole thing is full of constitutional violations," he says. "The drone use is a secondary concern."
The laws regarding wandering livestock in North Dakota are confusing, and Quick says police abused their power by trying to force Brossart to return the cows to their owner, while the tasing of Brossart was "tortuous" and akin to "water-boarding."
In its rebuttal, the state argues that Brossart resisted arrest and was warned he would be tased. Brossart's family was allegedly armed with high-powered rifles and neither party denies that Brossart told police that if they set foot on his property, they would "not [be] walking away."
State prosecutors say the drone was used only after arrest warrants had been issued and wasn't used to gather evidence needed to make the arrest, only to ensure the safety of the SWAT team sent in to raid the farm.
"Unmanned surveillance aircraft were not in use prior to or at the time Rodney Brossart is alleged to have committed the crimes with which he is charged," state prosecutor Douglas Manbeck wrote.
Grand Forks SWAT team leader Bill Macki says that the department has had an agreement with the Department of Homeland security to use Predator drones for three years, and that it was called in to make the arrest safer for both Brossart and the force. He says that the department has "received training on the basic capabilities of the Predator" and that they have specific guidelines for "when [they] can or cannot use a drone."
Manbeck defends that assessment and wrote that the SWAT team used the drone properly."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."
Quick and law experts agree with that—in general, manned aerial surveillance has been found to not violate Fourth Amendment rights that protect against unreasonable searches. But Quick will have the chance to make his argument when the case goes to trial in June.
"We're starting to see drones used more and more, but were they intended to be used by civilian law enforcement?" he says. "That smacks of big brother to me. I think we need to think long and hard before we proceed down this path."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.