Court Upholds Domestic Drone Use in Arrest of American Citizen

A motion to dismiss charges based on the use of a Predator drone was denied Wednesday.

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A North Dakota court has preliminarily upheld the first-ever use of an unmanned drone to assist in the arrest of an American citizen.

A judge denied a request to dismiss charges Wednesday against Rodney Brossart, a man arrested last year after a 16-hour standoff with police at his Lakota, N.D., ranch. Brossart's lawyer argued that law enforcement's "warrantless use of [an] unmanned military-like surveillance aircraft" and "outrageous governmental conduct" warranted dismissal of the case, according to court documents obtained by U.S. News.

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District Judge Joel Medd wrote that "there was no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle" and that the drone "appears to have had no bearing on these charges being contested here," according to the documents.

Court records state that last June, six cows wandered onto Brossart's 3,000 acre farm, about 60 miles west of Grand Forks. Brossart allegedly refused to return the cows, which led to a long, armed standoff with the Grand Forks police department. At some point during the standoff, Homeland Security, through an agreement with local police, offered up the use of an unmanned predator drone, which "was used for surveillance," according to the court documents.

Grand Forks SWAT team chief Bill Macki said in an interview that the drone was used to ensure Brossart and his family members, who were also charged, didn't leave the farm and were unarmed during the arresting raid.

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Brossart faces felony terrorizing and theft of property charges and a misdemeanor criminal mischief charge. Although his charges weren't dismissed, Brossart won a motion to move the trial from Nelson County—which has a population of 3,100—to nearby Grand Forks County.

Brossart is believed to be the only American citizen who was arrested with the assistance of a drone on U.S. soil. John Villasenor, of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, says the legality of domestic drone use likely stems from two Supreme Court cases that allow police to use "public, navigable airspace" for evidence gathering.

Domestic drone use has become a controversial topic over the past several months, with Congress directing the Federal Aviation Administration to devise guidelines for proper drone use.

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Wednesday, Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Edward Markey released a draft of a bill that would require private drone operators to inform the government of any data collected by drones and would require law enforcement to "minimize the collection … of information and data unrelated to the investigation of a crime."

States are "increasingly using unmanned aircraft systems in the United States, including deployments for law enforcement operations," according to the bill. There "is the potential for unmanned aircraft system technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections."

In April, Brossart told U.S. News that he thought the SWAT team use of the drone was "definitely" illegal. Some estimates suggest that there may be as many as 30,000 unmanned drones operated in the United States by 2020 for uses such as wildfire containment and surveillance, law enforcement, and surveying.

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.