- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The North Dakota Supreme Court on Monday cited a mistake in jury instructions in throwing out a felony terrorizing conviction against a Lakota farmer whose standoff with police drew widespread attention after authorities used a drone to conduct surveillance.

A jury in 2013 found Rodney Brossart guilty of terrorizing and misdemeanor charges of preventing arrest and failing to comply with state laws on wandering cattle. The dispute began over an investigation into missing cows that intensified when family members allegedly pointed guns at officers and ignored repeated orders to appear in court.

The high court ruling said a judge should have told the jury what constitutes a threat and what qualifies as protected speech. The justices ordered a new trial on the terrorizing charge. The two misdemeanor convictions were upheld.

One of Brossart’s lawyers, Mark Friese, called the reversal “a welcome relief” and said the defense team planned to talk with Brossart about the next step.

“An injustice has been corrected,” Friese told The Associated Press. “Since the beginning of this case, Mr. Brossart has rightfully and consistently maintained that felony charges were inappropriate.”

Attorney Cameron Sillers, who argued the Supreme Court case for the state, said Monday afternoon he had not seen the opinion and had no comment.

The jury had found Brossart not guilty on two other charges, for theft and criminal mischief. Brossart was sentenced a year ago to six months in jail and 2 ½ years of probation.

The arrest of Brossart in June 2011 was the first drone surveillance case involving a private citizen to receive attention from national media outlets. The standoff began when Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went onto Brossart’s land with a search warrant to look for six missing cows. Janke said he left after he was confronted by three men brandishing rifles.

Authorities eventually used images from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Predator drone to find the location of Brossart and other family members and to make sure they were unarmed. The event sparked a national debate and discussions among lawmakers about the use of unmanned planes for law enforcement.

Brossart was approached about the missing cattle on June 23, 2011, by Eric Braathen, a Nelson County Sheriff’s Department deputy, and Fred Frederikson, a licensed peace officer and brand inspector for the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association. According to court documents, Brossart told the officers that if they went on his property, they wouldn’t walk off, and told his son to “get it” in his truck, where a rifle was located.

After Brossart resisted arrest, Braathen used a Taser on Brossart “multiple times” before he was handcuffed, the document said.

The justices said Northeast Central District Judge Joel Medd failed to give the jury instructions that communications that are not a “true threat” are protected speech. “Whether a statement or communication constitutes a threat is a question for the jury,” the ruling said.

Brossart, his wife and one of their children have filed a federal lawsuit accusing Nelson County authorities of excessive force. It seeks unspecified damages.

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