Senators question Holder on police use of motion detectors

635575406406845899-635573034044168397-handheld-promo-artWUSA 9 – by Brad Heath

Radar devices that allow police officers to effectively see into suspects’ homes raise “privacy concerns of the highest order,” top lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee said Thursday.

At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with that technology, with little notice to the public or the courts. The devices work like very fine motion detectors, capable of determining whether someone is inside a building by detecting movement as slight as human breathing.  

Coupled with the disclosure that federal agents had deployed sophisticated cellphone monitoring tools, use of the radar “raises questions about whether the Justice Department is doing enough to ensure that — prior to these technologies’ first use — law enforcement officials address their privacy implications, seek appropriate legal process, and fully inform the courts and Congress about how they work,” Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday.

They also questioned “how many other new technologies are being used by law enforcement agencies that raise similar privacy concerns.”

The letter came after USA TODAY disclosed the use of those devices Tuesday.

Grassley and Leahy asked Holder to brief their staff on the issue by Feb. 13.

Current and former law enforcement officials said the radar devices can help police officers storm buildings or rescue hostages more safely. But privacy advocates expressed concern about the circumstances in which the devices had been used, and about the fact that agencies had deployed them without public notice.

Contract records show the U.S. Marshals Service began buying the handheld radars, known as the Range-R, in 2012. But their use went largely unknown until more than two years later, when a federal appeals court in Denver revealed that a deputy marshal had used one to arrest a man wanted for violating his parole. The judges expressed concern that the agent had used one without a search warrant, warning that “the government’s warrantless use of such a powerful tool to search inside homes poses grave Fourth Amendment questions.”

The Supreme Court said in 2001 that the police generally cannot use high-tech tools to determine what is happening inside someone’s home unless they have a search warrant.

Follow investigative reporter Brad Heath on Twitter @bradheath.

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