Pubdate: Sun, 29 Apr 2001
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Copyright: 2001, New Haven Register
Author: Joe McGurk


WEST HAVEN  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 Eficacy, 
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 

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 

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 

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.
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