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What a Cattle-Theft Case Could Mean for U.S. Law Enforcement Use of Drones

It was a strange and historic moment when North Dakota police decided to call in an unmanned Predator surveillance drone over a farmers’ dispute about animals. Now a court case in the small town of Lakota has become the primary testing ground for the use of unmanned aircraft by law enforcement across America.

The odd episode began in June last year when six cows wandered onto land owned by Rodney Brossart, who declined to return them to their owner until he was paid for the feed the cattle had consumed.

When police tried to get involved, Brossart’s family—who “prefer to limit their contact with governmental actors,” according to a court brief—allegedly chased the officers away with guns. Ultimately, a military-grade Department of Homeland Security-owned unmanned drone was deployed (for reasons that are disputed),  and a local SWAT team called in. Brossart became the first American to be arrested with the assistance of a drone—and the six cows were returned.

Quick is arguing that “the warrantless use of unmanned surveillance aircraft” was unlawful on Fourth Amendment grounds. He points to the United States Supreme Court judgment in Kyllo v. United States, which held that obtaining information by sense-enhancing technology not available for general public will be subject to constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

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