WASHINGTON -- Police violate the Constitution if they use a heat-sensing device to peer inside a home without a search warrant, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
An unusual lineup of five justices voted to bolster the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and threw out an Oregon man's conviction for growing marijuana.
Monday's ruling reversed a lower court decision that said officers' use of a heat-sensing device was not a search of Danny Lee Kyllo's home and therefore they did not need a search warrant.
In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, by many measures the most conservative member of the court, the majority found that the heat detector allowed police to see things they otherwise could not.
"Where, as here, the government uses a device that is not in general public use to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a 'search' and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant," Scalia wrote.
While the court has previously approved some warrantless searches, this one did not meet tests the court has previously set, Scalia wrote.
The decision means the information police gathered with the thermal device -- namely a suspicious pattern of hot spots on the home's exterior walls -- cannot be used against Kyllo.
The court sent the case back to lower courts to determine whether police have enough other basis to support the search warrant that was eventually served on Kyllo, and thus whether any of the evidence inside his home can be used against him.
Justices Clarence Thomas, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined the majority.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy.
At issue was how modern police technology fits into the court's long line of decisions on what should be considered a search requiring a court warrant.
Kyllo was arrested in January 1992 and charged with growing marijuana at his home in Florence, Ore.
Police had been investigating his neighbor, but they focused on him after they trained a thermal imaging device on his home and saw signs of high-intensity lights. Using those images, electricity records and an informant's tip, police got a warrant and searched Kyllo's home, finding more than 100 marijuana plants.
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