Supreme Court Hears Marijuana Case
Tuesday, February 20th 2001, 12:00 am
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) â€” An Oregon man says narcotics agents invaded his privacy and trampled on his Fourth Amendment rights when they used a device to detect excessive heat coming from his house â€” without a search warrant.
The ``thermal imager,'' a camera-like device that depicts infrared radiation, gave law enforcement officials a piece of evidence that led to a search warrant for Danny Lee Kyllo's home in Florence, Ore. Inside, agents found drug paraphernalia and more than 100 marijuana plants, and arrested him.
Kyllo has appealed his case to the Supreme Court, which on Tuesday was considering whether law enforcement officials violated a constitutional ban on unreasonable searches when they used the heat-sensing device. The nine-year-old case pits technology against personal privacy.
``Technology that exploits invisible, sub-sensory phenomena ultimately fails to respect the traditional boundaries of society, and therefore leaves the population defenseless against such surveillance,'' Kyllo's attorney Kenneth Lerner wrote in court papers.
Lerner said the government downplays the fact that an experienced operator of the device can glean a wealth of information from the thermal imaging scans, including ``fairly precise'' images through some glass windows.
The government argues that law enforcement officials were within constitutional limitations when they utilized the scan, which sensed heat patterns emanating from Kyllo's home indicative of lights used to grow marijuana. They used the images â€” along with a tip from an informant and electricity records â€” to obtain a search warrant.
In court papers, government attorneys compared the thermal imaging scan to an officer observing someone's home. They argued that the scan does not penetrate the house and reveal private activities, and is not a constitutional violation.
The ``government investigator stationed in a public place used a thermal imager to observe an area exposed to the public â€” the roof and exterior walls of a house â€” and did not observe private activities,'' they wrote.
In 1991, a narcotics task force was investigating whether Kyllo's neighbors were growing marijuana at a triplex house.
But when officers used a thermal imager on Kyllo's residence, they found unusual amounts of heat coming from his home's side wall and garage roof.
After obtaining a warrant and searching the house in January 1992, Kyllo was arrested.
He was sentenced to 63 months in prison, but the high court's decision could lead to important new guidelines on how law enforcement officials use technology while conducting searches.
In the past, the high court has allowed law enforcement agencies â€” without warrants â€” to fly over a person's property or use a flashlight to illuminate a person's car.
However, the justices have required warrants when officials put microphones inside a person's home or listening devices on public telephones, among other surveillance methods.
A district court judge in Portland originally ruled against Kyllo, who pleaded guilty on the condition that he could appeal the legality of the search.
After an initial ruling in his favor, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the use of the thermal imaging device, saying its use did not constitute an illegal search.
The case is Kyllo v. U.S., 99-8508.
On the Net: For the Supreme Court Web site: http://www.supremecourtus.gov