Washington The Supreme Court, in a case pitting constitutional privacy protections crafted in the 18th century against the intrusive power of modern technology, ruled Monday that police must obtain a search warrant before using high-tech devices to gather information from inside a private home.
In a 5-4 ruling featuring an unusual alignment of justices, the court said the key test was whether law enforcement officers would have had to enter the home to obtain the same information if they did not have access to modern devices. In such a case, the majority said, the officers must first show probable cause of a crime and obtain a search warrant, just as they do to physically enter a home and conduct a search.
The case involved an early morning surveillance in 1992 by two federal law enforcement agents who pointed a thermal imaging device at the outside of the home of Danny Lee Kyllo in Florence, Ore. The device recorded unusual amounts of heat coming from parts of the home, reinforcing the agents' suspicion that Kyllo was using high-intensity lamps to grow marijuana inside. Based in part on that information, a judge issued a warrant to search the home, where the agents found more than 100 marijuana plants.
But Monday the Supreme Court said that the use of the heat-sensing device before the warrant was issued was an impermissible search of Kyllo's home, violating the Fourth Amendment protection against 'unreasonable searches and seizures.'
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the case confronted the court with the question of what limits there are on the power of modern technology "to shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy."
Scalia was joined in the majority opinion by one of the court's other most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, and liberal Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Justice John Paul Stevens, usually a leader of the court's moderate to liberal bloc, was joined in dissent by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the court's swing votes in many important cases, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy.