Author: Joe McGurk

New Haven Register (CT) Copyright: 2001

The West Haven police department can turn night into day. By using the latest drug fighting gadget - a thermal imaging camera - police officers can detect illegal activity usually shrouded in darkness. Parking lot drug deals and indoor marijuana farms are fair game for cops using the $13,000 camera, purchased for the department by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The only persons who won't like the camera are criminals, police Sgt. John Jarvie said, because "criminals use the element of darkness to their benefit." Use of the camera is controversial. Civil liberty groups claim use of the camera is an invasion of privacy.

The state Supreme Court recently backed the use of camera, using a 1996 arrest by Seymour police as a test case. "It's just a probable cause tool," Jarvie said.

"The privacy issues are misunderstood, we can't see what people are doing inside their houses, the camera doesn't see through walls or windows." What the camera does is give officers a black and white picture of night that is almost as clear as day. It will be the department's eyes at night, as Jarvie explained, and they will look in the same public places they are allowed to look during the day. The hand-held camera shows heat in degrees of white light. So if police suspect a person is dealing drugs in a darkened lot, they can see the deal. And, if someone is using hot lamps to grow marijuana in a house, the police can see the intense amount of heat leaving that house's roof.

Since use of thermal cameras became more common over the last few years, the Statewide Narcotics Taskforce reports a drop in the number of persons found growing marijuana indoors. Five indoor locations were raided and 36 plants were destroyed in 1996, according to the taskforce. In 1996, 15 interior growing areas were raided and 603 plants were destroyed. Police have more success finding marijuana growing outside, where the hardy plant thrives. Police found 62 growing locations in 2000 and destroyed 4,606 plants, worth $13 million on the street.

Persons who have been arrested for growing marijuana have appealed to state and federal courts that police using thermal imaging violated their right to privacy. Cliff Thornton, president of Hartford-based civil liberty group Efficacy, when reached this week said "thermal cameras are an infringement on peoples rights of privacy, and I don't think its right." "I will fight it at all costs, and I think the law enforcement agencies are overstepping their boundaries," he added. "If they suspect drugs anywhere, they can do anything, it seems." He said use of the thermal cameras is "insanity...the newest encroachment on our rights," He said his agency doesn't advocate drug use, but demands police deal with the drug problem in a "rational, reasonable manner." "Spying is another part of the ridiculous insanity," Thornton said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has what could be a precedent setting case under review, based on an arrest using thermal cameras.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues that thermal imaging technology "enables the authorities to breach secrecy without physical intrusion," as recorded in a brief recently filed with the court. In 1996, two Seymour men were charged with cultivating marijuana after police used thermal imaging to detect the heat from their growing lamps. They appealed their conviction to the state Supreme Court and claimed their fourth amendment rights to privacy had been violated. A judge upheld the conviction. Phil Tegeler, Connecticut Civil Liberties Union's legal director, said the CCLU "fortunately hasn't seen enough cases in the state," to take action, but added "it's an area of great concern...and I'm sure there are more coming." He said the constitution gives persons the right to privacy, and that the cameras just should not be used in areas where privacy is expected.

West Haven police don't buy that argument. "There's no expectation of privacy for heat that's leaving a house," Jarvie said. "Obviously people who are breaking the law won't like this technology." Jarvie said he didn't know what would happen if the Supreme Court limits thermal camera use in drug surveillance, but even though the camera's main purpose is drug enforcement, its capable of a lot more.

It can show officers hidden compartments in houses and cars, areas where heat buildup may be different than surrounding areas. Drugs or guns may be stored in such areas. It can be used along the shoreline to look for lost boaters, Jarvie said. The camera can see through fog and smoke and see persons floating on top of water. Also, it can be used in accident investigation, because the camera can pick up the heat of tire marks where there is no visible trace of a skid on the pavement. The camera can also detect heat from trace amounts of bodily fluids that may be embedded in carpet or on walls for possible use in homicide investigations. Jarvie said police will use the camera to quickly find fleeing suspects or lost children or elderly people. It has a half-mile visual range and can be used in an aircraft or from the roof of a building. It can be connected to a video camera to record what officers see.

The 2.5 pound camera can operate in minus 40-degree temperatures to over 100-degree temperatures. Jarvie said the camera will be made available to the fire department and all police shifts. Jarvie said a judge would not grant a search warrant for suspected drug cultivator's dwelling based solely on use of a thermal image. "The camera is just a probable cause tool, one thing we need, but we compile a whole host of other things," he said.