N.D. Farmer Convicted in 1st Domestic Drone Case - FindLaw Blotter
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N.D. Farmer Convicted in 1st Domestic Drone Case

A North Dakota farmer will be spending six months in jail thanks to surveillance by a domestic Predator drone.

Rodney Brossart was arrested in 2011 for refusing to return cows to his neighbor's property and for allegedly "terrorizing" police officers who tried to arrest him, according to U.S. News and World Report. During the standoff, the local SWAT team borrowed a Predator drone from the Department of Homeland Security to locate Brossart and his three armed sons. It was the first time a drone was used to help make an arrest on U.S. soil.

Does Brossart's conviction set a new precedent for "trial by drone"?

Convicted of Terrorizing Police

Brossart was eventually acquitted of the cattle-related theft charges, but he was convicted January 14 of terrorizing police, U.S. News reports. In North Dakota, terrorizing is a Class C felony which applies to threatening to commit any crime of violence or act dangerous to human life -- especially when directed toward the police.

A North Dakota judge sentenced Brossart to three years in prison for his terrorizing conviction, but suspended all but six months' jail time. The conviction was in no small part thanks to the watchful gaze of the domestic surveillance drone, which had an eagle eye of Brossart and his sons.

For those worried about privacy and the increasing use of drones, Brossart's case sets an unsettling precedent: use of drones without a warrant.

Warrantless Drone Search

In 2012, Brossart tried to get his case thrown out because it was "dispatched without judicial approval or a warrant," U.S. News reports. A federal judge disagreed, declaring that the use of the drone "had no bearing on [Brossart's charges]" and was not improperly used.

Law enforcement cannot generally surveil into the confines of a person's home without a warrant and/or probable cause. Opponents of domestic drone surveillance like Brossart would argue that since there was no warrant for the drone's use, the arrest and evidence that followed should be thrown out.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged several cases in which aerial, manned crafts were legally used for surveillance without a warrant. Many courts have found the views taken by those aerial observers to be outside the surveillance subject's reasonable expectation of privacy. Arguably, if a neighbor could have spotted Brossart the same as a low-flying drone might, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in that surveillance.

According to U.S. News, Brossart apologized at his sentencing and made no mention of drones. Just in case they were watching...

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