Hold on to your tin hats and pocket Constitutions because a little remarked-upon court decision may bring the domestic drone age one flight closer to your doorstep.
Only one American has been busted so far with the aid of a predator surveillance drone since domestic law enforcement began using the weapons of war-turned-spy machines in the last few years. Thanks to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) this spring, we know there are 60 entities (including the military, various federal agencies, local police and universities) in 20 states permitted to use drones. But the case of Rodney Brossart of Lakota, North Dakota, represents the first time a drone has been unleashed by police (in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security) to help sniff a suspect out of his own property. Once police knew where he was and that he wasn’t armed, a SWAT team swooped in and grabbed Brossart and his family members. This final action and his subsequent arrest occurred after a heated cattle dispute led to “sovereignist” Brossart & family allegedly chasing police off their 3,000 acre farm with guns and engaging in a 16-hour standoff. Read more about Rodney Brossart here and here.
Sounds like the Old West range war meets Minority Report (remember, those creepy robotic spider spies?), but this weekend it became a much bigger and very real story, as Brossart’s motion for dismissal based on what he believed to be the unconstitutional use of drone surveillance by the government was rejected by the court and the charges against him upheld. According to U.S News & World Report’s Jason Koebler, who has been following Brossart’s travails:
Brossart’s lawyer argued that law enforcement’s “warrantless use of [an] unmanned military-like surveillance aircraft” and “outrageous governmental conduct” warranted dismissal of the case, according to court documents obtained by U.S. News. District Judge Joel Medd wrote that “there was no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle” and that the drone “appears to have had no bearing on these charges being contested here,” according to the documents.
Experts suggested that Brossart’s case was thin from the outset as the Supreme Court had already upheld the use of helicopter surveillance of private property in the 1986 case California v. Ciraolo. In that case, the highest court said the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of Dante Carlo Ciraolo, who was growing marijuana in his backyard. The police helicopter’s warrantless “hover and stare” at his uncovered cultivation from 1,000 feet was well outside Ciraolo’s reasonable expectation of privacy. SCOTUS then reaffirmed this precedent three years later when it sided with the government in upholding a conviction against a man who was busted for growing pot in his 5-acre backyard. In Florida v. Riley, the court said it was perfectly constitutional for police to gather evidence, without warrant, by hovering 400 feet in a helicopter above the man’s property, peeking into two broken windows of his private greenhouse where the illegal weed was growing.
This does not bode well for folks hoping to draw a line in the sand against the dragonfly stealthiness of drone surveillance in America. And that’s the key. Unlike the damnable noise made by your standard helicopter, drones, which can get lower, are quiet and often undetectable. Brossart said he didn’t even know about the drone on his property until the case was presented to him in court. Drones are intrusive, and we know from experience that if the government, not to mention private corporations once they get the green light, will presume sweeping authority until the courts tell them to knock it off.
Right now, those 60 aforementioned entities have taken out some 750 authorizations from the FAA to use drone technology on U.S soil since 2006. No one knows how many of these mechanical insects are being deployed (here is a map of what we do know). But expect to see much more of their use in law enforcement surveillance operations — now that they’ve been given the blessing to use them, sans warrant.