North Dakota farmer Rodney Brossart was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for his role in a 2011 cattle theft case. No big deal right? Not so fast. This is a groundbreaking case not because of anything done by Brossart, but because it marks the first time in American history a surveillance drone was used to convict somebody of a crime. Here’s what happened.
Brossart was arrested on June 23, 2011 on suspicions of cattle theft. His neighbor reported seeing his missing cattle on Brossart’s property, but both Brossart and his family refused to comply with the neighbor’s request to have the cattle returned. The neighbor reported the incident to police, who then showed up at Brossart’s property with a warrant to locate and return the cattle.
Warrant or not, Brossart and his family had no intentions of letting police on their property. Brossart and his three sons stood on their property with guns drawn and refused to let the deputies search their land. No shots were fired in the standoff, but Brossart and his sons now had a whole new criminal charge against them: terrorizing police.
Nelson County court officials sent numerous court summons to Brossart after the standoff. But although he’d been formally charged with a felony crime, he refused to appear in court. Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke was at a loss for how to deal with the brazen farmer -- Brossart wouldn’t show up for court, but he feared what would happen to his deputies if they visited his property again.
The US Border Patrol stepped in. Since the Brossart’s wouldn’t let deputies on their land, authorities were forced to search his property some other way. That other way would be from the sky. Border Patrol deployed a surveillance drone above Brossart’s property to collect evidence, a first in American history.
After evidence was collected, the Sheriff’s Department executed a tactical operation that resulted in the arrest of Brossart and his sons. A jury found Brossart not guilty of stealing cows, though he did admit in court to refusing to return his neighbor’s cows.
"This case should have never happened," presiding Judge Joel Medd said. "Chalk it up to stubbornness, to stupidity, to being at odds with your neighbors or any combination of those. We should never have been here if the cows would have just been returned."
When asked why he didn’t just return the wandering cattle to his neighbor’s property, Brossart said "Sometimes things don't make sense…And we do things that we wish we had done differently."
Though cattle theft charges were dropped, the terrorizing police charge was not. Brossart will serve 90 days in jail and will be placed on probation for 2.5 years. Records indicate this isn’t Brossart’s first brush with the law. He has a string of misdemeanor accrued over years that include convictions of disorderly conduct and preventing arrest. Sounds familiar.
Though Brossart himself will probably be forgotten soon, his case very well may have an impact on thousands of Americans in the future. If -- or more likely when -- drone use becomes commonplace in criminal investigations, we can be reminded that it all started with a stubborn North Dakota farmer's refusal to return a few cows.