Even as constantly updated Twitter feeds and live-action news become commonplace, police scanners still remain popular in Pennsylvania. People use them to stay updated on recent crimes or simply get an idea of what is going on in their Pittsburgh neighborhoods. With the introduction of scanner apps, this information seems more accessible than ever.
As criminal defense attorneys, we receive inquiries about the legality of police scanners. Former defendants often like to keep track of the police and a generally curious public likes to stay informed.
The short answer to this question is yes—police scanners are legal to own and operate in the United States. However, you also need to know how to use them appropriately.
Police Scanner Authorization
A police scanner is optimized to pick up signals on the VHF and UHF landmobile radio systems used most frequently by law enforcement. It is most commonly used by journalists, public safety officials and private investigators although private individuals also enjoy following police feeds.
Police scanners started off as radio devices that could be purchased at electronics stores. The trick was to choose the models that zeroed in on VHF and UHF signals. Now, you can download smartphone apps to pick up on these frequencies. There are no regulations in Pittsburgh or the state of Pennsylvania on these devices or apps. In fact, with some of the technology available, you can listen to feeds in different states—even across the country.
Legal authorization to use police scanners comes from the Communications Act of 1934 which regulates communication by wire or radio. The frequencies used by police departments are considered public with no expectation for privacy, which encouraged the development of scanners. There is also some authority granted from the Freedom of Information Act since police activity is considered part of the public interest and not within the realm of confidentiality.
Some police departments acknowledge public curiosity and make information easier to access. Police activity shows up on the Broadcastify page for the Pittsburgh Metro Area. Departments all over the country have their own Twitter feeds that are updated with the latest events. Even if you do not own a scanner or a police scanner app, it is still possible to get information regarding police activity because it is generally freely available.
The Future: Encryption
This age of freely available police information may soon conclude. Police departments are starting to encrypt their scanners to keep developments out of public awareness.
Encryption makes police scanner feeds more difficult to access with typical consumer scanners or apps. Pennsylvania State Police started encrypting in 2010 and municipal police departments started the same practice. A similar measure in Washington D.C. generated public hearings in 2011 before becoming final. Pasadena, California began its encryption program in 2012.
Even without encryption, police departments may sometimes take the feeds offline. For example, after the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, scanner activity stopped because there was a massive manhunt underway to find the offender. This was done in the interest of officer safety but also to avoid sharing information that could assist the fugitive.
There is disagreement on whether encryption is necessary or if it makes law enforcement practices more difficult. Some departments are looking into other means of information protection, including using different channels or cellular technology that has isolated frequencies.
Practices To Avoid
If you use a police scanner where the signals are not encrypted, be aware that does not grant privileges. Under the same communications act that authorizes police scanners, it is still illegal to tap into cordless or cellular telephone conversations. Also, some states, like New York, do not allow the use of a police scanner while driving.
Pennsylvania has laws that do not specifically involve police scanners but still control their use. Hindering the prosecution of a crime by concealing suspects, evidence or weapons is a third degree felony in this state. Instances where people used scanners or scanner apps to elude capture or help others avoid the police were prosecuted under Pennsylvania statute 18 § 5105.
Basically, if you are using a scanner to follow police activity out of curiosity, it is legal. However, if you have been prosecuted for a crime before and want a scanner to keep an eye out for the police, proceed with caution. Many defendants feel generally paranoid even if they did nothing wrong. That is understandable and unlikely to cause trouble. Be aware that if you are using the scanner to avoid prosecution again or help a friend commit a crime, you will likely face charges for hindering prosecution.
If you are facing criminal charges in Pittsburgh and they involve a police scanner, we can assist you at DeLuca, Ricciuti & Konieczka. Call us at (855) 976-2198 for a consultation.