Court limits police's high-tech search of homes

Justices protect privacy in a 5-to-4 ruling against the use of thermal imaging.

The US Supreme Court has drawn the curtains, closed the blinds, and firmly shut the door on the unsupervised use of law-enforcement technology to detect crimes in private homes.

The result: American homes are today more private than they were yesterday.

In a major decision that strengthens privacy protections in the face of increasingly sophisticated law-enforcement snooping devices, the high court ruled yesterday that police must obtain a warrant from a neutral judge prior to using technology that reveals even relatively minor details about what's going on inside a private home.

"The use of technology in this way clearly exposes private information concealed in the home," says James Tomkovicz, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. The ruling, he adds, may set a standard on when technology triggers constitutional protections.

"The Fourth Amendment values privacy in the home above all else, and technology makes it possible ... without physically intruding [the way] the British did [when] the Constitution was framed," says Mr. Tomkovicz, who filed an amicus brief for the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Police are not required to get a judge's authorization before using technological surveillance devices that merely record information about a home that is exposed to public view. But in its 5-to-4 ruling, the court says the use of the technology requires a warrant when a device could uncover information about activities inside a home that police could not have obtained otherwise.

The ruling sets a benchmark for police who are in a position to use intrusive high-tech surveillance tools. "The Fourth Amendment draws a firm line at the entrance to the house," writes Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. "That line, we think, must be not only firm, but also bright."

Civil libertarians were warning that high-tech snooping by law enforcement was threatening to undermine the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. They had urged the court to head off a potential explosion of privacy-rights litigation by setting a clear standard to cover the types of information gathered by newly emerging technologies.

Law-enforcement officials countered that such devices should require a warrant only if they reveal intimate details inside a home.

The high court's ruling relates to the marijuana conviction of Danny Kyllo of Florence, Ore., whose home was raided by drug agents after a thermal-imaging device showed a higher amount of heat emanating from his house than from neighboring structures.

The device detects infrared radiation and shows it as visible light. Drug agents suspected the heat was being produced by banks of high-intensity light bulbs in a marijuana-growing operation inside Mr. Kyllo's home.

Armed in part with the thermal-imaging observations, agents obtained a search warrant and raided the Kyllo home. Inside, they found more than 100 marijuana plants, weapons, and marijuana-growing equipment.

Kyllo's lawyer challenged the legality of the search, saying agents should have obtained a search warrant from a judge prior to using the thermal-imaging device.

Lawyers for the drug agents countered that the device recorded the thermal image of the home from a car parked in a street. They said the procedure was no more intrusive to Kyllo's privacy than had agents taken a photo or videotaped the home from the street.

In reversing a lower court ruling, the court majority said the thermal image of the heat gave investigators key additional information about Kyllo's activities inside the house.

But the majority stopped short of reversing Kyllo's conviction. Instead, the court remanded the case back to a federal judge in Oregon to determine if investigators had enough other evidence when they applied for their search warrant to justify the raid.

Alexandra Marks contributed to this report from New York.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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