Cops Can’t Use Thermal Imagers Without Warrant, High Court Rules

Police must procure a warrant before they can legally use thermal imaging devices or other new technologies to detect activities taking place inside the home, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday. Thermal imagers measure heat emanating from a house and are frequently used by law enforcement to identify indoor marijuana cultivation.
“We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area constitutes a search – at least where the technology in question is not in general public use,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the Court.
The decision overturns a Ninth Circuit ruling that found the warrantless use of thermal imaging did not constitute a search because “intimate details” were not revealed.
“The Fourth Amendment’s protection of the home has never been tied to measurement of the quality or quantity of information obtained,” the high court rebuked. “In the home, … all details are intimate details, because the entire area is held safe from prying government eyes.”
The defendant in the case, Danny Kyllo of Oregon, was charged with marijuana cultivation in 1992 after federal agents used thermal imaging to scan the amount of heat emanating from his home.
For more information, please contact Donna Shea, Esq., NORML Foundation Litigation Director, at (202) 483-8751.