Your zone of privacy may be narrowing in some areas, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that unless they have a warrant, police cannot scan your home with a thermal imaging device to track the heat radiation coming from inside. That’s what cops did to bust Danny Kyllo, an Oregon man who was manufacturing marijuana in his home.
When law enforcement suspected that Kyllo was growing marijuana in his home, they drove to his house with a thermal imaging device. While driving around his residence, federal agents used the device to scan it. The process picks up infrared radiation that is not visible to the naked eye, and converts the data into color images based on warmth. Agents found that certain areas of Kyllo’s home were hotter than the rest, and much warmer than the neighboring units – a potential sign of high-intensity lamps typically used for indoor marijuana growth. Based in part on the thermal imaging, the Federal Magistrate Judge issued a warrant to search Kyllo’s home, where over 100 marijuana plants were found. Kyllo was indicted on a federal drug charge, despite his unsuccessful attempts to suppress the evidence.
However, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 opinion ruled in favor of Kyllo, and held that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Aiming such a device at a private home constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, the Court found, and therefore requires a warrant.
In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia explained that thermal imaging devices explored details of a private home that could only be exposed through physical intrusion, and are therefore unreasonable without a warrant. “To withdraw protection of this minimum expectation would be to permit police technology to erode the privacy guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment,” wrote Scalia.
“In the home,” he added, “all details are intimate details, because the entire area is held safe from prying government eyes.”
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