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N.D. Farmer Sentenced in Warrantless Drone Search Case

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on January 30, 2014 2:57 PM

Law enforcement took a turn for the futuristic in North Dakota when a farmer in the state became the first person to be convicted following the use of a Predator drone, raising questions about the legality of warrantless drone searches.

Rodney Brossart was arrested in 2011 for refusing to return his neighbor's cows and for allegedly "terrorizing" police officers who tried to arrest him.

That's when things took a turn for the creepy.

Predator Drone Assisted Arrest

During the heated standoff, the local SWAT team borrowed a Predator drone from the Department of Homeland Security to locate Brossart and his three armed sons, making it the first time a drone was used to help make an arrest on U.S. soil, reports U.S. News.

Brossart was eventually acquitted of the cattle-related theft charges, but he was convicted of terrorizing police. Because the conviction resulted in large part from the domestic drone's aerial surveillance, Brossart tried to get his conviction overturned, contending the drone was "dispatched without judicial approval or a warrant," U.S. News reports.

Warrantless Drone Searches

So, does this case trigger exciting legal drama related to warrantless drone searches that may ultimately give folks like Brossart a glimmer of hope in eventually fending off their convictions? Probably not.

The case does raise interesting questions about whether drones are in "public navigable airspace" or infringe on a person's reasonable expectation of privacy. But the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged several cases in which aerial, manned crafts were legally used for surveillance without a warrant.

In addition, many courts have found the views taken by those aerial observers to be outside the surveillance subject's reasonable expectation of privacy. So, 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.

And to think it all began with a few cows.

What do you think about the use of drones in arrests? Join the discussion on Facebook at FindLaw for Legal Professionals.

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