The long arm of the law meets the eye in the sky. The Franklin County Sheriff’s office in southern Washington announced it has two new “officers” on the force: drones with thermal imaging cameras. And they couldn’t be more fired up about it.
“It’s really amazing the kind of technology you can get these days,” Detective Joshua Dennis told Pasco’s KEPR. “We’re ecstatic. We can’t wait to get out and use them.” So, what can these drones actually see, and what are they allowed to do?
Perps on the Run
To be fair, thermal imagining has a range of applications outside tracking down criminal suspects. Local law enforcement will use them to locate missing people or as part of disaster response efforts. “At the Juniper Dunes or White Bluffs recreational area,” Dennis said. “we get numerous calls every year about people being stuck or lost.”
Law on the Books
Police asserted they will not use the thermal drones for surveillance, and for good reason. The Fourth Amendment establishes the “right of the people to be secure in their persons [and] houses … against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the Supreme Court has placed limits on high-tech government snooping.
In 1992, federal officers used thermal imagining to scan the home of Danny Lee Kyllo from across the street. They believed Kyllo was growing weed in his house, and, knowing the kind of light and heat needed for indoor growing, they wanted a heat signature of his residence. Sure enough, they found significantly more heat coming from his garage than other parts of the house. Based on the thermal scan and other information, officers got a search warrant and found over 100 marijuana plants in Kyllo’s house.
But in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the thermal imaging of Kyllo’s home constituted a search, and since officers didn’t have a warrant for the scan, all the resulting evidence was tossed out. “We have said that the Fourth Amendment draws ‘a firm line at the entrance to the house,'” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. “That line, we think, must be not only firm but also bright — which requires clear specification of those methods of surveillance that require a warrant.”
So, if you find out cops have been peering into your home with a thermal imaging drone (and without a warrant), call a good criminal defense attorney today.