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Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald, Published August 07 2012

Court venue changed in ND farm family standoff

Media attention over the case of a Lakota, N.D., farmer charged with felony terrorizing and theft over a confrontation last summer with law enforcement helped him get it moved out of Nelson County.

Rodney Brossart’s history of tangling with local authorities and his neighbors also figured into state District Judge Joel Medd’s decision, filed last week, to change the venue of Brossart’s case to Grand Forks.

The cases against his four children — Abby, Jacob, Alex and Thomas — who also face felony charges in the incident, as well as a misdemeanor charge against his wife, Susan, are being handled together and also are now Grand Forks cases.

The six Brossarts, along with two younger children, live on a sprawling farmstead southeast of Lakota, in the midst of 3,000 acres owned by Rodney and Susan Brossart.

Ross Brandborg, a Fargo attorney, is representing the four Brossart children — all in their 20s — and Susan Brossart.

Small jury pool

Brossart’s attorney, Bruce Quick of Fargo, argued in an April motion in state court in Lakota that the cases should be moved partly because Nelson County has only 3,100 people and far fewer eligible for a jury.

When three cows with their calves wandered from neighbor Chris Anderson’s pasture to the Brossarts’ farm land on June 23, 2011, it turned into a confrontation between the Brossarts and law enforcement officers seeking to retrieve the animals.

In motions to dismiss the case or at least move it out of Nelson County, Quick brought up the issue that has drawn international attention: the use of an unmanned aircraft operated by the U.S. Border Patrol to surveil some of the Brossarts before their arrest.

National media reports hyped the unusual use of such a federal drone in a local law enforcement arrest of a U.S. citizen.

Quick said the drone’s use illustrated the over-done law enforcement, as well as the media exposure, that makes it impossible for Brossart to get a fair trial in Lakota.

“Law enforcement has increased the (media) exposure by the warrantless use of unmanned air-craft, public comments and press interviews,” according to Quick.

Frequent feuds

In his ruling, Judge Medd agreed the small population of Nelson County might work against Brossart, partly because the farmer has feuded so much over the years with local authorities and his neighbors.

“Brossart has been involved in other litigation involving many of his neighbors,” Medd wrote. “There has been considerable unfavorable publicity against the defendants.”

Going back a decade and a half, Rodney Brossart has been convicted of criminal trespass, disorderly conduct and “obstructing highways,” in feuds with local government officials and neighbors, usually over property-related issues. He’s also sued and been sued by neighbors, also about property issues.

Just next door, with 70,000 people, Grand Forks County will provide a big enough jury pool while not inconveniencing prosecutors, Medd said.

Doug Manbeck, the part-time state’s attorney in Nelson County, said he agreed with Medd’s ruling. Grand Forks County prosecutors already have promised to help on the case.

Medd rejected Quick’s request to drop the charges. Quick argued the Brossarts had been unfairly targeted and leaned on by law enforcement, including the use of drone surveillance. But Medd ruled the drone played a negligible role in Brossart’s case, which deserves a trial.

In his brief, Quick described the Brossarts in the language of a good advocate: “The Brossarts are an exceedingly close-knit family, who prefer the company of one another over the company of extended family or friends. The Brossarts are exceedingly hard-working farmers and ranchers who prefer to limit their contact with government actors. The Brossarts have been repeat victims of over-reaching, officious and unlawful conduct of government officials.”