Drone-Aided Arrest Raises Questions About 4th Amendment

The story of the North Dakota man who was arrested by a SWAT team aided by a Department of Homeland Security Predator Drone has caught the public’s imagination.

Approximately a year ago, Rodney Brossart got into a tussle with police over the ownership of six cows that had wandered onto his land. 

As the situation escalated — there were reports that Brossart chased officers off his farm at gunpoint — the Grand Forks SWAT team called in a favor to the Department of Homeland Security. 

Essentially, they asked the DHS if they could use its predator drone, located at a nearby Air Force Base to survey Brossart’s property, to ensure it was safe to apprehend him.  

Without a hitch the unmanned aircraft was sent to Brossart’s property.  Once it arrived, SWAT used its high-tech surveillance cameras to check if the coast was clear – it was, so SWAT, with guns drawn, swarmed in on the disgruntled farmer. 

Brossart was tasered, cuffed and subsequently charged for, among other crimes, terrorizing a sheriff.  He became the first American citizen to be arrested with the help of a Predator drone (something tells me, he won’t be the last).

DroneHis attorney was outraged.  Not only because SWAT used a drone, but because his client was subject to “guerrilla-like police tactics” that were as severe as “water-boarding.”

“The whole thing is full of constitutional violations,” Attorney Bruce Quick told U.S. News. “The drone use is a secondary concern.”

Grand Folks PD deny that Brossart was mistreated during the raid and argued that the use of the drone was justified given the exigent circumstances, authorities pointed to the fact that Brossart and his family were brandishing “high-powered rifles” during a standoff that lasted roughly 16 hours.  

Moreover, Douglas Manbeck, the state prosecutor, told UPI that the SWAT team used the drone only after warrants were issued.

“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,” Manbeck told UPI.

Did the use of the unmanned surveillance aircraft violate Brossart’s 4th Amendment rights?

I suppose a jury will answer that question. 

However, looking at the larger picture, it’s clear that we’ve now entered the age of drone-aided policing.  Glenn Greenwald, a columnist at Salon who has extensively covered the dangers of domestic and foreign use of drones wrote:

“With Congress requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to simplify and expedite drone applications from U.S. police departments by May 15, industry and watchdog groups agree: It won’t be long before cops and first responders put them into action.”

Brossart was the first case.  The next one might be in Houston, where the local Police Department recently purchased a $300,000 ShadowHawk drone. 

Drone launching a missle.“It’s an exciting piece of equipment for us,” Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel told the Houston Chronicle. “We envision a lot of its uses primarily in the realm of public safety — looking at recovery of lost individuals and being able to utilize it for fire issues.”

McDaniel added that in the future the aircraft could be equipped with non-lethal weapons such as Tasers or bean-bag guns. 

For those who shrug their shoulders at drones or for those who attempt to equate them with other surveillance vehicles, like helicopters, they might want to reconsider what makes drones unlike anything else being used today.

“The fact is that drones vest vast new powers that police helicopters and existing weapons do not vest: and that’s true not just for weaponization but for surveillance,” Greenwald forewarns. 

“Drones enable a Surveillance State unlike anything we’ve seen. Because small drones are so much cheaper than police helicopters, many more of them can be deployed at once, ensuring far greater surveillance over a much larger area. Their small size and stealth capability means they can hover without any detection, and they can remain in the air for far longer than police helicopters, he concluded.”

What do you think about entering the drone age?