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Police use military drones to arrest U.S. citizens

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A recent news report revealed that local police made the first ever arrest of U.S. citizens with the assistance of drones.

It's been the year of the drone.

While the technology has been heralded as a gamechanger in the U.S. military's war on terror, it's also proven to be just as much a liability. For instance, Predator and surveillance drones have enabled commanders to take out key operatives such as second ranking Al-Qaeda member Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. They've also been hacked, decried for assassinating a terrorist suspect who happened to be a U.S. Citizen and have fallen in the wrong hands, as is the case with the ongoing hostile sitution in Iran. Now, the use of Unmanned aerial vehicles have just opened a whole new can of controversy.

A recent news report revealed that, back on June 24th, local police in North Dakota made the first ever arrest of U.S. citizens with the assistance of unarmed predator drones. And oddly enough, the incident didn't involve terrorism or narcotics, but rather a search for missing cows on a remote stretch of farmland.

Here's a brief synposis of what transpired on a late summer evening as reported by Stars and Stripes, a military news publication. Sheriff Kelly Janke of the Nelson County Police Department had entered the 3,000 acre Brossart family farm looking for six cows that were reported missing when three men with brandishing riffles men chased him off the property. Upon retreating to safety, he immediately called for backup, which included a SWAT team, a bomb squad and a Predator B drone.

The next morning the drone scoped out activity from overhead and found that the three men had left the farm in an all-terrain vehicle and were unarmed, enabling police officers to swarm the suspects without the risk of a deadly confrontation.

But what so happens to be an effective way to head off a potentially dangerous situation, can also be viewed as a blatant violation of personal privacy, especially in light of the fact that the the drones have already aided law enforcement on at least a few occasions.

"We don't use (drones) on every call out," Bill Macki, head of the police SWAT team in Grand Forks told Stars and Stripes. "If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don't call them."

In 2005, surveillance drones were initially sanctioned for use by the Customs and Border Protection agency to crack down on illegal immigration and drug smuggling. But what has been somewhat somewhat overlooked was a provision that allowed for the deployment the fleet of eight unmanned aircraft for “interior law enforcement support,” which apparently includes cases of livestock theft.

Since then, local police have called upon the drones for all kinds of surveillance, which at least one member of congress thinks is a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, a law that bars the military from taking a police role on U.S. soil.

According to Stars and Stripes:

Former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who sat on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee at the time and served as its chairwoman from 2007 until early this year, said no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.

Using Predators for routine law enforcement without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake, Harman said. "There is no question that this could become something that people will regret," said Harman, who resigned from the House in February and now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank.

Historically, the courts have ruled that the use of surveillance technology, including from aerial vehicles, was legal since any behavior outside the walls of a a person's home was essentially being done out in the open. And proponents argue that the drones are better than planes since they fly out of sight and can monitor a location for 20 hours straight. In this situation, officers even obtained a search warrant to probe the property. But ultimately, whenever you have a case of government ordinances butting heads, the courts will likely have to revisit the matter.

And in case you're wondering, a sweep of the Brossart property uncovered "four rifles, two shotguns, assorted bows and arrows and a samurai sword" along with the missing cows.

(via Stars and Stripes)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure