The Wild, Wild West: Drones Hunting Down Cattle Rustlers

This story, billed as an account of the first Predator-drone assisted arrest in the US, has all the elements we’ve been expecting from this development.

The drone in question belongs to the Border Patrol; presumably, it operates under the legal black hole built up around borders.

The drones belong to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates eight Predators on the country’s northern and southwestern borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers.


Congress first authorized Customs and Border Protection to buy unarmed Predators in 2005. Officials in charge of the fleet cite broad authority to work with police from budget requests to Congress that cite “interior law enforcement support” as part of their mission.

The local sheriff used the drone to conduct sophisticated surveillance of his target, the Brossart family.

For four hours, the Predator circled 10,000 feet above the farm. Parked on a nearby road, Janke and the other officers watched live drone video and thermal images of Alex, Thomas and Jacob Brossart — and their mother, Susan — on a hand-held device with a 4-inch screen.
The glowing green images showed people carrying what appeared to be long rifles moving behind farm equipment and other barriers.

What surprised me, though, was the justification for using the drone: $6,000 worth of cows that had wandered into the family’s property.

A search of the property turned up four rifles, two shotguns, assorted bows and arrows and a samurai sword, according to court records. Police also found the six missing cows, valued at $6,000.

Now, to be fair, the cow thieves in question weren’t just your garden variety cow thieves. In a move that ought to remind Conservatives why they used to embrace libertarianism, these cow thieves allegedly belong to the Sovereign Citizen Movement.

The six adult Brossarts allegedly belonged to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an antigovernment group that the FBI considers extremist and violent. The family had repeated run-ins with local police, including the arrest of two family members earlier that day arising from their clash with a deputy over the cattle.

It’d be nice if the story considered this angle in more detail. Was the sheriff quicker to use this drone because he was targeting the closest thing his district has to terrorists? Is this part of the (also entirely predictable) focus on domestic terrorism for local law enforcement that doesn’t have any Muslim extremists to hunt?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. allan says:

    Note the

    “Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired Air Force general who heads the office that supervises the drones, said …”

    What mean Posse Comitatus, kemo sabe?

  2. emptywheel says:

    @allan: Yeah, I saw that.

    Look on the bright side. At least they have not yet outsourced this to contractors (I don’t think).

    They do the same thing in Mexico, I think, but there the AF guy retires, joins a contractor, and then helps target drones against drug cartels.

  3. ApacheTrout says:

    The Supreme Court (Florida v Riley 1989) held that the search was legal based on the public use of airspace and the observation of the subject’s property by an individual using his own eyes (and presumably binoculars).

    The use of high resolution cameras, heat sensors, and radars sure seem to be a good basis for lawsuit on 4th amendment violations. It’s one thing to see things that anyone can see using their own eyes or the use of binoculars. The use of a drone is also substantially different than a helicopter in that one is common, the other extremely unique.

  4. MadDog says:

    Aside from the issue of the federalization of local law enforcement which apparently merits not even a whimper from our elected representatives, one can mark this as another milestone in the failure to recognize and rein in how technology impacts and affects Americans’ civil and privacy rights.

  5. ApacheTrout says:


    Good point. This case as the potential to quite paradoxical if the ACLU offers to assist the Sovereign Citizens Movement.

  6. behindthefall says:

    drone-related, but otherwise O/T: is the following out in tinfoil hat territory? — article saying that Drone Central in the U.S. was infected by malware that apparently was recording keystrokes that controlled drones in the Mideast (and elsewhere?).

    Keep recording keystrokes long enough and watching drone behavior in in the field and presumably an opponent could write a basic operating manual for a drone.

    Iran and China are chummy, as I recall.

    Many cyber-attacks have been attributed to China, and why not? We like to imagine that they are not at war, but of course they are: it’s the battle that you don’t have to fight (because of intelligence) that you win, and even moreso the war.

    Hypothesis: the drone now in the hands of the Iranians was not “shot down”; it was guided to a landing by Chinese hackers working through the Iranians. Watch for the drone to disappear into China, where it will add to their expertise in stealth technology and surveillance.

  7. jerryy says:

    Who gets the blame when someone being targeted by these drones decides, under the guise of self defense or protecting their privacy, to shoot back? (I am guessing the home defense industry wil soon have ready for sale various detectors and countermeasures.)

    There is plenty of video available that shows missile strikes etc. being launched from drones, obliterating their targets. And as noted, if a helicopter is flying overhead, the diligent homeowner can tell their skinny-dipping kids to stay inside.

    But when you are in a gravity field, bullets shot upward, must come down and land somewhere…say a populated area.

  8. Mary says:

    So, should these guys get a military commission for cattle rustling? Is that how they were providing material support to their terrorist organization that is seeking to destroy the American government? And shouldn’t they be detained, whatever the results of their commission, until the war on terror is over.? Shouldn’t we push for the logical extension of Congressional and Executive branch acts? Maybe these guys should defend at trial by claiming only the military has jurisdiction. That would be pretty damn interesting to watch.

  9. Mary says:

    Apache trout – I’m no expert, but iirc there are also some non- Sup Ct cases re military drug sniff dogs being used and lower courts saying that was not using the military for searches.

  10. jerryy says:

    @behindthefall: The short answer to your very first question is ‘no’.

    Keystroke loggers are legit IT tools (legit and benign in certain circumstances — I doubt this is one of them) but so often end up being abused and badly misused. I do hope Bradley Manning’s legal team is keeping track of the issue, because while this may not be at the level of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s activities, it illustrates the difference of using technology for whistleblowing war crimes vs aiding the ‘enemy’ — keep in mind we have not been told who received the information, if anyone, the logger was collecting.

  11. Mary says:

    From the main article, the quote from Jane Harman sure raises some questions about what Congress is being told about the use of the military domestically.

    “But former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), 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.”

    Also, to be fair, it does soun more as if the drone was called in bc of the armed threat if violence used against the sheriff trying to execute his duly issued search warrant than because of the cows. It was after the deputy was prevented, at gunpoint, from searching that they went to the drones, supposedly to try to determine when the inhabitavpnts were not armed to again enter the property. I’m guessing the cattle will take backseat to the threats of armed violence against an officer of the law executing his duties in the final act. Fwiw

  12. MaryCh says:

    Per Mary @12, what weaponization of domestic drones can we look forward to? I’m guessing tasers rather than pepperspray.

  13. JohnLopresti says:

    Windy, get the Bar 20 outfit over there pronto to help, tell em bring a predator, a sentinel, a raptor, one grim reaper, a Bergman film download onto an iPad, and to set up on that there mesa and look for the partridge in the pear tree down in that ravine. [Hoppy decides to skip asking about another writ of replevin, saving that for the next film adventure series.]

    I do not know about Apache Trout’s commentary’s area of law much, but it seems like something the black bears in the Adirondacks might be interested to study.

    Though I agree that the sheriff deputy had a very difficult job to do, and my personal politics are cattleman, with respect to the referenced incident. Complicated and very difficult. It evokes lots of images, but it is dangerous. Usually, the most solid way to prefent those kinds of hassles simply is to know the neighbors, and have good fences.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @Mary: Yup: they got charged with terrorizing an officer.

    The kind of thing used to justify pepper spray against OWS protestors, I might add.

    As to Harman, the story also notes that the budgetary backup makes it clear these drones would be assisting local law enforcement. So they may not have been briefed, but they were told.

  15. rugger9 says:

    @ApacheTrout: #3
    It will be interesting litigation, with the bonus of the sovereign citizen movement antics in the courtroom like Pacino [“you’re out of order, YOU’RE out of order…”] if/when this comes to trial. While I’m pretty certain thermal imaging inside the home is out of bounds for the 4th, the drug war frequently images the suspected grow houses and meth labs. I think it’s covered by the same concept when applied to garbage, if one tossed it out, it’s not private any longer. No one in these places tries to prevent emissions, they just jump the meter so the power company doesn’t know the usage.

  16. rugger9 says:

    I would also note that it would be tough sledding to argue that open fields imply the absolute right to privacy. The rustlers for their part should be happy the sheriff got them, I understand the ranchers know what is usually done with rustlers.

  17. Mary says:

    @MaryCh: And there is the good old “let’s microwave our civilian population” option. *sigh*

    @15 – I thing they were sold on a bill of goods of drones as border surveillance and federal law related issues, not as back up for standoffs between locals and sheriffs. More a Cowboys v. Aliens instead of a Sheriffs v. Separatists. fwiw.

    While I don’t think this should have been allowed, especially since it was being done on a non-urgent basis with no judicial oversight, I have to say I think that three guys with guns pointed at a deputy telling him he can’t come on the property despite his stinkin search warrant is a lot differnt than OWS protestors.

    Here in Indiana/Kentuckyland, I’ve seen this kind of thing play out before. We’ve had some pretty active separatist guys and gals who put up barbwire around their buildings and had gun turrets they trained on any sheriff trying to serve warrants.

    Interestingly, they were almost all big time shyster-rip off guys, who did things like set up companies to rip off people (like a construction co with up front money, or selling shares in an oil play, etc.) and then bankrupt the company and walk away. They were all pretty tapped in with some ways to make money disappear/get laundered and they literally kept discovery and law enforcement at bay with arms.

    For guys so glib about spouting that paper money was worthless bc the govt had broken its social contract and no longer backed its currency with gold, they sure never hesitated to bilk any little old lady they could out of her “worthless paper.”

    @17 – I’m not sure how much of the 3000 acres the guys owned, but privately owned land that includes open fields and publically owned open fields are different. And using thermography for either/both is a different thing again.

    I’m going to guess they drop a lot of the thermography references vis a vis the arrests and say that only information equivalent with sight based information was used for the arrests. We’ll see, though. It won’t happen, but I like the scenario of them challenging the ability of the courts to exercise any authority over them bc they are insurgents fighting a corrupt government and the only jurisdiction would be military. I’d love to see what DOJ and the court did with that, but alas, it’s not to be.

  18. JohnLopresti says:

    @Mary: Only time I saw three landowner rifles trained upon me was when the cattle I managed got thru fences into a homestead private creek. It was a new neighbor; he, his wife, and kid, each had shoulder arms apparently pointed rather accurately in my vicinity, and were shouting git yer cows outta this here crick pronto, cowpuncher. How I did scramble to comply! It’s a wild world in those there hustings. but I agree, there is going to be a new corpus of robotics law an it aint gonna be just in them ozarks or on immigration intensive frontiers. I guess Mary already knows the rubrics under which this new tool(s) will fit, for some legal fora. The idea being to cut to the chase, and git varmints before all there is are hides, which will require a depity to locate hide (nor) hair.

  19. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Odd how such an expensive federal asset just happened to become available to police local state law claims for theft. The increasing militarization and federalization of local law enforcement should cause more worry than whether a few tribesmen 10,000 miles away hate us for freedoms.

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