An unmanned aircraft unit led by the Grand Forks County sheriff's department flew its first nighttime mission after four suspects fled during a traffic stop, department officials said Monday.
Officials said the drone team was contacted after a K-9 unit was unable to locate the occupants of a vehicle that was pulled over about 2:20 a.m. Sunday in rural Larimore, about 30 miles west of Grand Forks.
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The aircraft discovered one of the suspects in a corn field, although he ran away before deputies could find his location, officials said. Two suspects were eventually arrested on the scene, and a third was taken into custody later.
"Overall, the reports that I have received (about the mission) are all positive," said Lt. B.J. Maxson, the unmanned aircraft commander with the sheriff's department. "One of the suspects did tell our deputy that he laid totally still when the aircraft was over him, so it did work to our advantage."
Charges ranged from drunken and reckless driving to minor in possession and refusing to halt, officials said.
The Federal Aviation Administration in March granted permission for the drone unit to fly at night. The unit, which began daytime operations in May 2013, serves a 16-county area in northeastern North Dakota.
Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost told The Associated Press that the FAA gave the go-ahead after the unit performed extensive tests and established a compliance committee to set ground rules.
"We decided we needed to do this the right way," Rost said. "We don't want to infringe on people's rights."
Maxson said the drone flew two separate flights, for a total of about two hours. He said the wind picked up during the second flight, when the system encountered some difficulties with infrared pictures.
Rost said he doesn't know of any other law enforcement unit with the ability to fly drones at night. He said the compliance committee has received numerous phone calls from around the country since the nighttime missions were approved.
"When you can fly that UAS almost at the top of the cornstalks, it really cuts down on manpower time," Rost said. "If suspects think they might get away at night, now we have the ability to detect body heat."
Some state residents have complained about the use of drones in law enforcement. The North Dakota House in the last session passed a bill that would have required a warrant to use unmanned planes, but the measure was killed in the Senate.
Republican Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck said he introduced the bill because of constituent concerns about privacy rights.
Fargo attorney Bruce Quick, who represented a North Dakota man in the first drone surveillance case to receive national attention, said there shouldn't be constitutional issues with a search that took place outside the home.
"If these people are in a corn field, whether they use a dog, a helicopter, a manned airplane or an unmanned airplane, they don't have an expectation of privacy," Quick said Monday.
The drone unit is a joint effort among the Grand Forks County sheriff's department, the University of North Dakota and unmanned aircraft manufacturers. Rost, who has been in law enforcement for 40 years, said UND's renowned aviation school has spent several years developing policies and procedures for drones.
"I never in my wildest imagination thought we would be using unmanned aircraft systems," he said. "I'm very open-minded about this. I think technology is great."