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Aerial Drone Surveillance: Coming Soon to a Court Near You?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on August 13, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Unmanned Predator drones aren't just for killing Al Qaeda terrorists on foreign soil anymore. Domestic aerial drone surveillance is on the rise, and it's already being questioned in court.

Rodney Brossart of Lakota, N.D., the first U.S. citizen to be arrested with the help of an unmanned aerial drone, tried to get his criminal charges dismissed because of the alleged "warrantless" use of a drone by police.

But a judge rejected his argument, finding "there was no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle" in his arrest, according to U.S. News and World Report.

If you haven't heard, here's how this unique case arose:

Several cows wandered onto Rodney Brossart's farm in June 2011, and a dispute over compensation for the cows' actions on his property led to an armed standoff, U.S. News reports.

Grand Forks, N.D., police used a Homeland Security aerial drone for surveillance during the standoff. Brossart was arrested and faces several felony charges.

Last week, a judge denied Brossart's motion to dismiss those charges based on police use of the aerial drone. The drone had "no bearing" on the charges against Brossart, the judge ruled. (The drone only tracked Brossart's location during the standoff, police told U.S. News.)

But as the use of aerial drones takes off -- the FAA has already issued more than 300 "temporary licenses" for law-enforcement and research drones, and 30,000 drones may be in use by 2020, McClatchy-Tribune News Service reports -- legal challenges are likely to follow. These may include:

  • Fourth Amendment challenges about whether drones are in "public navigable airspace" or infringe on a person's reasonable expectation of privacy; and
  • Actions concerning drone safety or accidents, as drones are far more likely to crash than commercial or general-aviation aircraft, according to McClatchy-Tribune.

Congress may soon debate the issue of domestic aerial drone surveillance. One lawmaker has drafted a bill to impose privacy standards on commercial drone operators, The Hill's technology blog reports. Issues with law-enforcement and government drones may soon give rise to similar action.

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