Police use high-tech radar to warrantlessly monitor people inside their homes

RANGE-R radar detects people through walls. (Image: range-r.com)
RANGE-R radar detects people through walls. (Image: range-r.com)
RANGE-R radar detects people through walls. (Image: range-r.com)

WICHITA, KS — Documents have revealed that authorities are now using high-tech radar devices to “see” occupants’ movement inside their homes. Despite drawing constitutionality questions about warrantless searches, a federal court has upheld evidence that was obtained after using the device.

The RANGE-R radar device.  (Image: Cyterra.com)
The RANGE-R radar device. (Image: Cyterra.com)

At the center of the controversy is a portable Doppler radar device called RANGE-R. Its manufacturer states that the radio-frequency scan of a house can be done silently in seconds from outside the home. The RF waves “will penetrate most common building wall, ceiling or floor types including poured concrete, concrete block, brick, wood, stucco glass, adobe, dirt, etc.,” the website states. “However, it will not penetrate metal.”

The device has remained largely unknown — even to judges — because law enforcement agencies are not seeking judicial approval to use them. A recent appellate case in Kansas may have been the first to draw significant attention to the controversial device.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Josh Moff was forced to explain the use of the RANGE-R unit during examination in court:

“It’s called a Ranger. It’s a hand-held Doppler radar device.”

“It picks up breathing, human breathing, and movement within a house.”

“It’s a device that’s about 10 inches by 4 inches wide, 10 inches long. You hold the device up to the house and it sends that radar out, or, Doppler radar out through the house; and when it comes back, it will tell you if it’s picking up somebody’s breathing. Then it will tell you if that person is moving or if they’re stationary. And it tells you how many feet from where you’re at it’s coming from. So it could say 10 feet, 15 feet or whatever; and if it’s moving it will say — it will read the different feet off as they’re moving, how far they are from you.”

Deputy Moff was testifying about the 2013 arrest of a parole violator, Steven J. Denson, in Sedgwick County, Kansas. Moff and other federal agents used the RANGE-R device to detect movement in a residential home that had a utility account registered to “Steven Denson.” After using RANGE-R to detect movement inside the home, the team entered and arrested Denson.

Interestingly, Deputy Moff’s report made no mention of the radar; it said only that officers “developed reasonable suspicion that Denson was in the residence.” The team did not have a search warrant to enter and and search the residence.

Denson was charged with parole violation and possessing firearms following a felony conviction. Upon appeal, three judges on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to throw out the evidence (firearms) on account of the warrantless radar search, and upheld Denson’s conviction.

Despite the decision, the judges wrote that they had “little doubt that the radar device deployed here will soon generate many questions for this court.”

Indeed, the use of radar draws remarkable similarities to other techniques that have already been deemed a “search” for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, including the use of thermal imaging to see through walls (Kyllo v. United States) and the use of dogs to sniff the perimeters of houses (Florida v. Jardines).

USA TODAY reported that over fifty U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with radar devices. The customers of radar-maker L-3 Communications reportedly includes the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service.

“The idea that the government can send signals through the wall of your house to figure out what’s inside is problematic,” ACLU technologist Christopher Soghoian told USA TODAY. “Technologies that allow the police to look inside of a home are among the intrusive tools that police have.”

Until policy makers draw up some guidelines or the courts consider the radar a form of a search, law enforcement agencies will continue to expand the use of the devices and do so without requiring a warrant or permission.

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