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Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Heat Emissions Case


January 1995

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take a case testing the validity of thermal imaging technology evidence (Lyle Denniston, "High Court Turns Down Challenge of Search Based on Heat Alert," Drug Enforcement Report, Dec. 23, 1994, p. 3).

As was reported in the Sept./Oct. issue of NewsBriefs, thermal imaging units map relative heat levels over an area. Law enforcement officials use the units to detect increased heat emissions from a house -- one possible indicator of a marijuana-growing operation -- and to obtain search warrants.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in the case of U.S. v. Pinson that the use of a thermal imaging device against the defendant's house did not constitute a search (U.S. v. Pinson, No. 93-2851, 24 F.3d 1056 (8th Cir. 1994)). Thermal imaging technology evidence is similar to a drug detection dog's sniff of a piece of luggage, the court ruled, and does not require a search warrant. The court ruled that Joseph Pinson, the defendant, did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy concerning the heat radiating from his home.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents learned during surveillance of Pinson's home that he had purchased some plant-growing equipment and that his electric bills were higher than his neighbors'. On July 25, 1993, agents flew over his house with a thermal imaging camera and detected a higher-than-average level of heat coming from some rooms.

Based on the thermal imaging technology evidence, agents obtained a search warrant. Pinson was convicted of manufacturing more than 100 plants.

The Supreme Court typically does not comment on why it chooses not to hear a case.