Radar technology that allows police to ‘see’ inside homes raises fresh concerns from judges and civil liberty advocates.
At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies across the country are now using radar devices that enable them to effectively see into people’s homes and determine if anyone is inside.
Although the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and others have had the technology for more than two years, it only came to light during a federal appeals court hearing in Denver last month.
During the case it emerged that officers had used the Range-R device before they entered a house to arrest a man wanted for violating his parole.
Agents arrested Denson for a parole violation and charged him with illegally possessing two firearms they found inside. The agents had a warrant for Denson’s arrest but did not have a search warrant. Denson’s lawyer sought to have the guns charge thrown out, in part because the search began with the warrantless use of the radar device.
Three judges on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the search, and Denson’s conviction, on other grounds. Still, the judges wrote, they had “little doubt that the radar device deployed here will soon generate many questions for this court.”
The judges in the case expressed alarm that agents had used the technology without a search warrant in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s advice.
‘The government’s warrantless use of such a powerful tool to search inside homes poses grave Fourth Amendment questions,’ said the judges.
USA Today reported that the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that the Constitution generally bars police from scanning the outside of a house with a thermal camera unless they have a warrant, and specifically noted that the rule would apply to radar-based systems that were then being developed.
In 2013, the court limited police’s ability to have a drug dog sniff the outside of homes. The core of the Fourth Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, is “the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.”
Still, the radars appear to have drawn little scrutiny from state or federal courts. The federal appeals court’s decision published last month was apparently the first by an appellate court to reference the technology or its implications.
That case began when a fugitive-hunting task force headed by the U.S. Marshals Service tracked a man named Steven Denson, wanted for violating his parole, to a house in Wichita. Before they forced the door open, Deputy U.S. Marshal Josh Moff testified, he used a Range-R to detect that someone was inside.
Federal officials claim the tool is critical for keeping officers safe if they need to storm buildings or rescue hostages, but civil liberties groups aren’t convinced.
Federal contract records show the Marshals Service began buying the radars in 2012, and has spent $180,000 on them.
‘The idea that the government can send signals through the wall of your house to figure out what’s inside is problematic,’ Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union’s principal technologist, told USA Today.