Antigovernment extremists have always feared those elusive black helicopters. Now they can add government surveillance drones to their paranoia list.
In what’s being called the first case of its kind in the United States, a Predator drone operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection played a role in the arrest of a farmer who is an adherent of the anti-tax “sovereign citizens” movement and his three sons, all of whom were sentenced earlier this month in Lakota, N.D.
The case started on June 23, 2011, when a neighbor’s six cows wandered on to Rodney Brossart’s 3,600-acre farm in eastern North Dakota and Brossart didn’t immediately return them. Brossart, whose run-ins with the law and his neighbors are reportedly legendary in that part of North Dakota, was accused of threatening and fighting with deputies who went looking for the missing cows before arresting him.
When deputies returned with a search warrant to get the cows, they were turned back at gunpoint by Brossart’s sons, triggering a standoff that ultimately involved deputies from three counties, a SWAT team and a bomb squad.
It ended without bloodshed after the deputies used live video images from a Predator drone, circling two miles overhead, to determine that the antigovernment suspects were unarmed and could be safely arrested. Brossart’s wife and daughter also were arrested, but charges against them later were dropped.
The case marked “the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has helped revolutionize modern warfare,” the Los Angeles Times reported shortly after the arrests. The drones not only have high-powered cameras, but a heat-detecting thermal imaging system that can detect the presence of firearms or explosives.
Brossart’s defense attorney, Bruce D. Quick, told Hatewatch this week that he will appeal his client’s convictions to the North Dakota State Supreme Court, but not the use of the drone. Rather, he said, the appeal will center on Brossart’s arrest without a warrant and the terrorizing an officer charge, which is tied to First Amendment free-speech issues.
“This case got all sorts of media attention, both locally and nationally, because of the drone component,” said Quick, who filed motions opposing the use of the federal drone by then-Sheriff Kelly Janke. But the trial judge denied that motion, saying the use of the drone was irrelevant to the charges, and the issue wasn’t raised during the jury trial last November.
Before the trial, the judge also blocked a proposed plea bargain that would have had all the defendants plead to misdemeanors – a deal which drew criticism from Brossart’s neighbors and the sheriff, who wanted him to stand trial for a felony.
Neither Janke, who has since resigned, nor his successor, Nelson County Sheriff Keith Olson, returned calls for comment on the three-year-old case. Cameron Sillers, a Langdon, N.D., attorney who was appointed as the third special prosecutor after two predecessors dropped out, also didn’t want to publicly comment.
Brossart, 57, was sentenced to six months in jail on Jan. 14 after being convicted by the jury of terrorizing law enforcement officers, a felony. He did not testify in his own defense before the jury, which also convicted him of misdemeanor charges of preventing arrest and violating the state's stray cattle law. He was acquitted on a felony cattle theft charge and a misdemeanor criminal mischief count related to allegedly damaging a sheriff’s patrol car. Brossart will be eligible for work-release after serving 90 days, and he must pay a $1,000 fine.
His three sons, Thomas, Alex and Jacob Brossart, all in their 20s, saw their felony charges stricken in exchange for their guilty pleas on Jan. 14 to menacing law enforcement officers, a misdemeanor. As part of a plea deal, their sentences will be deferred for a year, during which time they cannot possess firearms, the Grand Forks Herald reported.
“This case should have never happened,” state District Judge Joel Medd said in sentencing Rodney Brossart, the newspaper reported.
“Chalk it up to stubbornness, to stupidity, to being at odds with your neighbors or any combination of those,” the judge said. “We should never have been here if the cows would have just been returned."
The Grand Forks newspaper said Brossard was “chastened-sounding” when he told the judge: “I recognize that I should have handled the situation differently. I take responsibility for my actions and I will do what I can to ensure it won't happen again.”
The judge told Brossart that if he simply had allowed the cattle’s owner to load up his stray cattle and take them home, “You wouldn't be here today,” the newspaper reported. “You knew they weren't your cattle, that you couldn't keep them.”
"Obviously," Brossart agreed quietly.
Asked by the judge why he didn’t return the cattle to their owner, Brossart said, “Sometimes things don't make sense. ... And we do things that we wish we had done differently.”
He will have even more time now to reflect. He began his jail sentence Jan. 21 at the Devils Lake Jail in Ramsey County, N.D.