Predator Drone Used to Arrest American Ranch Family

By Barbara Boland | February 6, 2014 | 1:27 PM EST

In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, a U.S. Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

( - A Predator drone designed to catch terrorists in Afghanistan was used to track a recalcitrant North Dakota rancher and his sons accused of cattle thieving and monitor them to see when they were unarmed and alert the police in a case believed to be the first where an American citizen was arrested with the aid of a drone.

On Jan. 14, 2014, Rodney Brossart was acquitted of stealing cattle and criminal mischief, but convicted of terrorizing police (a conviction he is appealing) and sentenced to three years in prison with all but six months suspended.

This all stems from an incident on June 22, 2011, when six cattle from a neighboring property wandered onto Brossart’s ranch. Brossart found the cattle and, not knowing to whom they belonged, penned them in an area known as the “missile site.”

Brossart refused to return the cattle without remuneration (which he is entitled to under state law), but the police asserted that Brossart needed to return the cattle to the neighbor under estray laws.

According to the North Dakota statute on estrays or stray animals (Chapter 36-13), a person may take possession of a stray animal when it is on their property if it does not know who owns it. Once the owner is identified, the person shall notify the county sheriff or chief brand inspector. The person who takes possession of an estray may charge for actual damage done to the person’s crops or property by the estray as well as costs incurred for the care and feeding of the estray.

When Brossart declined to release the cattle to the police without payment for damages, the police insisted that they would go onto his property and take them, and Brossart “advised the officers that they would not return if they went on his property without permission.”

The police officer then told the rancher he was under arrest. “When Rodney [Brossart] would not immediately relent to the unlawful arrest, the brazen torture that follows defies belief…. Like a water-boarding interrogator, [the officer] repeatedly inflicted Taser electrical shocks to Rodney, all while Rodney violently convulsed in a puddle of water,” court documents state.

After tasing the rancher 8-10 times, the police took him to county jail. The police then returned to the ranch with a search warrant for the “missile site” where the cattle were penned.

After driving to “the private yard of the Brossart family,” to deliver a copy of the search warrant for the “missile site,” police observed that several members of the Brossart family were “in possession of firearms,” so they sent for a SWAT team and used the Predator drone to conduct overnight surveillance, alerting the police when the family was unarmed.

The police then returned in the morning, took the cattle from the “missile site,” and arrested several members of the Brossart family.

Originally designed to target terrorists hiding in remote regions of Afghanistan, Predator drones are now being used to conduct surveillance on American citizens here in the U.S. Drones are being flown inside the U.S. by many law enforcement agencies including the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP.)

The Predator is equipped with Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER), developed to detect insurgents in Afghanistan, which can alert authorities of targets’ location or when they are disarmed.

In this case, the police did not have a search warrant to use the Predator drone – nor are they required to under current law.

Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, found that over 700 Predator surveillance missions have been flown in the U.S. between 2010 and 2012.

The drone used in this case belongs to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which operates eight Predators on the country’s borders to assist with apprehension of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. CBP has operated Predators since 2005, when Congress first authorized them to buy unarmed Predators.

Sometimes, as in this case, local police will ask for the assistance of Border Patrol’s drones in apprehending suspects in remote locations; an activity that has occurred without public debate.

Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a member of the House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee at the time it approved drone use and chairwoman from 2007-2011, told the L.A. Times that “no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.

“Using Predators for routine law enforcement without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake,” Harman said. “There is no question that this could become something that people will regret.”