Drones Patrolling American Skies

One of the first reported cases in the nation where an unmanned drone was used to assist in the arrest of a U.S. citizen on his own property, put Rodney Brossart front and center in the debate over the burgeoning use of domestic drones, and the threat they may represent when authorities are given the ability to watch everything from above.

Amid 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans and miles from the closest town, a Predator drone led to the arrests of farmer Rodney Brossart and five members of his family last year after a dispute over a neighbor’s six lost cows on his property escalated into a 16-hour standoff with police.

In the North Dakota case, fearing that the Brossarts had armed themselves, local law enforcement asked for the assist from the Predator — unarmed but otherwise identical to the ones used in combat — that’s stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base as a SWAT team converged on the property.

Brossart’s attorney, Bruce Quick, requested that the charges be dropped because he said that the use of the drone was in violation of the 4th amendment. He also cited “outrageous governmental conduct, unlawful surveillance, illegal seizures and searches, unconstitutional application of North Dakota law, vindictive prosecution, and other statutory and constitutional injury” as justification for wanting the charges dropped. The North Dakota judge refused Quick’s request just a few days ago, but instead stated that “there was no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle” and that it “appears to have had no bearing on these charges being contested here.”

This case is ongoing, and the outcome remains to be seen, but for now, this judge has upheld the use of a predator drone in the arrest of an American citizen on our homeland. Considering the popularity of drones these days with law enforcement especially, this court case may set a dangerous precedent. What’s the next drone case going to be about? Maybe next time they will have killed someone with a drone because that person was a known gun owner. But what if they killed the wrong person? What if they killed bystanders as well? Will they call that “collateral damage.”

“All the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life — a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States,” the American Civil Liberties Union warned in a policy paper on drones last year, titled “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance.”

The federal government has been quietly expanding the use of drones in U.S. air space. Even as the wars abroad wind to an end, the military has been pleading for funding for more pilots. Drones cannot be flown now in the United States without FAA approval. But with little public scrutiny, the FAA already has issued at least 266 active testing permits for domestic drone operations, amid safety concerns. Statistics show unmanned aircraft have an accident rate seven times higher than general aviation and 353 times higher than commercial aviation.

Under political and commercial pressure, the Obama administration has ordered the FAA to develop new rules for expanding the use of small drones domestically. By 2015, drones will have access to U.S. airspace currently reserved for piloted aircraft.

When entering the state of Virginia on any highway, you may notice signs declaring that radar devices are illegal. There are all types of constitutional issues with this type of technological prohibition. If it’s OK to prohibit one type of technology that’s a threat to the State, what’s going to happen with more intrusive technologies like drones that are being proposed for our protection?

The government has predicted that as many as 30,000 drones will be flying over U.S. skies by the end of the decade and a Defense Department report to Congress has listed 110 potential drone bases on U.S. soil.

While I grant that there can be many legitimate scenarios for the domestic use of drones.  Drones are already in use patrolling portions of both northern and southern borders. They can quickly scout rural areas for lost children, identify hot spots in forest fires before they get out of control, monitor field crops before they wither or allow paparazzi new ways to target celebrities.

Our own government, at times, is itself in serious need of surveillance. After all, who is checking on them to make sure they’re not terrorists? Can drones fly in domestic airspace without crashing into an airplane? Can they be used in a way that doesn’t invade privacy? Who’s watching the watchers—and how closely?

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