Rodney Brossant, a North Dakota farmer who is under arrest and facing multiple charges including “terrorizing”—a Class C felony—and theft, has the distinction of being the first domestic fugitive to be apprehended using an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Brossant says he plans to fight his arrest by claiming the use of the UAV was illegal.
The case involving Brossant began in June 2011 when six cows from a nearby farm wandered onto Brossant’s 3,000-acre farm, and Brossant is alleged to have refused to return the cattle, according to court documents. The cows’ owner contacted authorities and Nelson County sheriff’s deputies showed up at the farm with a judicial “estray” order, in which a person holding stray livestock is directed to return the cattle to its owner.
Court documents allege when deputies served Brossant with a search warrant, he refused to return the cattle and said if they came onto his property they would not be coming back, resulting in Brossant’s arrest, court documents say.
Deputies returned to the home later that day, and court documents say they were met by three family members of Brossant—Thomas, Alex and Jacob Brossant—who brandished rifles. The officers fell back and called in reinforcements from the Grand Forks SWAT team.
The members were taken into custody without incident the next morning, and charged with terrorizing, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and/ or a $5,000 fine.
However, the Brossants all failed to show up for their preliminary hearing on Aug. 26, so bench warrants were issued for their arrest. The accused family members fled to the wilds of their property where they hid for months. Because of their ability to evade law enforcement, in October the sheriff’s department—armed with a search warrant—requested help from the Department of Homeland Security. Specifically, the deputies asked for
a UAV to find the fugitive Brossants, which the drone did, resulting in their capture. No one was hurt.
Rodney Brossant claims the use of the UAV to find him was illegal. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two cases that police can use aircraft over “public navigable airspace in a physically non-intrusive manner.” The court’s opinion in California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986) says warrantless aerial observation of a person’s backyard does not violate the Constitution, and the opinion in Florida v. Riley, 488 U.S. 445 (1989) says police do not need a warrant to observe an individual’s property from public airspace.
In Brossant’s case the deputies had a search warrant, the UAV was used to apprehend fugitives and not to gather evidence, and the Brossant farm is not sovereign territory—such as Pakistan—with its own airspace. Therefore, it is unclear what his claim of illegal drone usage will be based on.
At this point such an argument would seem to be nothing more than bull.