Authorities Turn On the Heat to Catch Criminals!

Authorities Turn On the Heat to Catch Criminals!
Posted by FoM on July 07, 1999 at 11:56:41 PT
Source: LA Times
Investigation: Appeals court upholds law enforcement's use of thermal-imaging device to apprehend two men found guilty of growing marijuana in a Thousand Oaks home.
It started with a tip to the Ventura County Sheriff's Department that two men were cultivating marijuana inside a four-bedroom home in a quiet Thousand Oaks neighborhood.   During a six-week investigation, detectives began to suspect that the men were nurturing an illegal crop with high-wattage light bulbs. Police used a thermal-imaging device to monitor heat levels rising from the house.   After the power company confirmed that large amounts of electricity were being illegally diverted into the home, deputies obtained a search warrant and seized 230 marijuana plants on July 11, 1997.   It was one of the county's largest indoor narcotics busts.   But it also yielded a unique legal challenge in which the defendants argued that the search warrant was illegally obtained because it relied on information, including the results of the heat-seeking device, that violated their privacy rights.   Last month, the 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld the convictions of David Singerman, 48, of North Hollywood and Jack Stanley, 51, of Malibu, who owned the Ventura County residence.   Singerman's attorney said Tuesday that she plans to appeal the matter to the California Supreme Court.   Meanwhile, officials at the Ventura County Sheriff's Department are cheering the decision, which found their investigative techniques fell within the state's legal boundaries.   "If we are affirmed by the court," Sheriff Bob Brooks said Tuesday, "we know that we are on pretty solid ground."   But Brooks said his department is aware that investigative techniques such as thermal imaging have come under fire in courtrooms across the country for being too invasive.   Most courts have found that the use of these devices does not violate privacy rights. But a small group of federal judges has rejected that view.   Brooks says the department takes a conservative approach and is "very, very conscious of the privacy interests of citizens."   But the challenge for law enforcement remains in outsmarting criminals who are increasingly using high-tech equipment to produce drugs in remote areas of county, he said.   In recent years, narcotics teams have discovered large-scale marijuana-growing operations tucked deep in the Ventura County back country.   Methamphetamine labs have also popped up in rural barns and orchards. Last year, authorities raided an operation near Camarillo that they suspect was set up by a Los Angeles drug ring.   "One of the things you have to look at with technology is you can't ignore it, because the criminals use it," Brooks said. "We are constantly pressured."   The department started using thermal-imaging devices about eight years ago as a search-and-rescue tool.   Initially developed by the military, the infrared devices produce a picture in shades of gray. Objects emitting heat show up as white images. For this reason, these devices are commonly used on helicopters to look for missing people or to track suspects at night.   But in the past three years, the devices have evolved into a new tool for narcotics squads trying to bust marijuana-growing operations. Since growing marijuana indoors requires the use of intense lighting, the devices can be pointed at a house to detect higher-than-normal heat levels.   Capt. Dennis Carpenter, who heads the department's narcotics unit, said the scanners are used only in cases where authorities have already obtained information about a possible pot nursery.   "We aren't going to go out and point a thermal imager at your home and use it to get a search warrant and kick your door down," he said.   For indoor marijuana production, growers must have heat lamps running through a 24-hour cycle, he said.   "And when you are running 200-plus plants in the home, you are going to have a significantly high electric bill," Carpenter said.   When detectives check with the power company and learn that the amount of electricity is substantially above normal, they can then use thermal imaging as one more way to determine if illegal growing may be occurring, he said.   That was the case in the Thousand Oaks bust, according to the appellate court's decision.   About two months before Stanley and Singerman were arrested, an informant told a detective that Singerman was growing marijuana in a Ventura County home--triggering an initial surveillance, court records show.   Deputies watched Stanley's 1,900-square-foot house on Calle Pimiento in Thousand Oaks for several weeks. They observed very little activity and concluded that the house was not being used a residence.   Without obtaining a warrant, a deputy scanned the house with a thermal-imaging device and observed vast amounts of heat escaping from the roof, according to the appellate court decision.   Four days later, Det. Lori Erickson contacted Southern California Edison. Billing records showed nothing out of the ordinary. At Erickson's request, Edison installed a surveillance meter on a utility pole in the backyard of the house, the decision said.   The meter revealed that electricity was being illegally diverted into the home and, based on that information, Erickson obtained a search warrant. Deputies found marijuana plants as tall as 4 feet and a sophisticated track-lighting system.   Stanley and Singerman were charged with cultivating marijuana and possessing marijuana for sale. Before trial, their attorneys filed motions to suppress evidence, which were denied. They each pleaded guilty to a single count of cultivating marijuana.   Stanley was ordered to serve 120 days in county jail. Singerman was ordered to serve 90 days. Each was placed on probation for three years, but both sentences were suspended pending appeal.   Appellant attorneys for the men were unavailable for comment Tuesday. But in briefs to the court, they argued that the search warrant was obtained using "illegal, warrantless" information.   They describe the actions by law enforcement as based on "a stale, uncorroborated tip" and a violation of their clients' privacy rights because the utility pole was in Stanley's backyard.   But San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey E. Burke, who has been temporarily sitting on the appellate court, disagreed. He maintained that the pole belonged to the power company--not Stanley.   As for the issue of thermal imaging, he wrote: "The crucial inquiry is whether the technology employed by the government reveals intimate details about objects or activities inside the home. The technology used here did not peer inside Stanley's house or otherwise penetrate its inner sanctum."   Times researchers Maloy Moore and Joan Wolff contributed to this story.Our Times Conejo Valley Pubdate: Wednesday, July 7, 1999By TRACY WILSON, Times Staff WriterFeedback to CVOurTimes 
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: