Infrared Thermal Imaging Deemed Unconstitutional Search By PA State Supreme Court

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld an appellate court ruling that the warrantless use of an infrared thermal imagining device, used to detect marijuana growing in a home, violates the constitutional rights of the homeowner under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the 2-1 decision, Judge Stephen A. Zappala, writing for the majority, contrasted the differences between the use of thermal imaging devices and the use of drug-sniffing dogs, which the U.S. Supreme Court has found to be legal without a warrant.
Zappala wrote, “The thermal imaging device, unlike the trained drug dog, does not have the ability to distinguish between legal and illegal activities occurring within the home based upon the amount of heat detected. In this respect, [use of the thermal imager] is the very antithesis of a dog sniff because the trained narcotics dog alerts only in the presence of contraband whereas the thermal imager indiscriminately registers all sources of heat. “
The case began in April 1994 when an informant told the Erie County Mobile Drug Task Force that Gregory Gindlesperger was growing marijuana at his home using artificial heat lamps. A thermal imaging device was then used to scan Gindlesperger’s home, which indicated an unexplained heat source in the basement which was not consistent with a furnace or other home heating sources. These results were then used to obtain a search warrant for the house and Gindlesperger was subsequently arrested for cultivating 21 plants. The trial court rejected the defendant’s motion to exclude the evidence and found him guilty. The case was appealed and the appellant court sided with the defendant saying the use of the device was a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“We applaud the court’s decision,” said Tom Dean, Esq., NORML Foundation Litigation Director. “High-tech surveillance by overzealous police officers is perhaps the greatest threat to personal security that we will face in this new century.”
For more information, please contact Tom Dean, Esq., NORML Foundation Litigation Director, at (202) 483-8751. To view the decision, visit