Supreme Court to rule on police use of heat detection device on homes

Constitutional right to privacy at issue in new-age technique

September 27, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court, looking into new-age police investigation techniques, agreed yesterday to rule on the constitutionality of using a heat detector to find out whether a crime is being committed inside a private home.

Handing down a series of orders for the new term that opens Monday, the court added 12 cases to its docket - including a man's challenge to police monitoring of heat emitted by the outside walls of his triplex house.

The man, Danny Lee Kyllo of Portland, Ore., said in his appeal that his case "raises the fundamental question of whether the Constitution's guarantee of personal security in one's home must yield to scientific advances that render our traditional barriers of privacy obsolete."

Federal and state courts are in dispute over whether the Fourth Amendment's protection of privacy requires police to obtain a search warrant before they may aim a heat-sensing device at the exterior of a home.

In Kyllo's case, a federal appeals court based in San Francisco ruled that such a device detects only heat that has been "lost" from the home and thus does not intrude into the home's interior. The device is like a trained police dog sniffing an object to see if it contains drugs, that court said.

Police investigating a marijuana-growing conspiracy had become suspicious of Kyllo. His home electricity bills, which were subpoenaed, showed higher-than-usual power use - suggesting to the officers that Kyllo might be using heat lamps to grow marijuana.

So an officer was sent to use a heat-sensing device; it turned up evidence of heavy heat rays coming off the roof and one wall. Using that information to obtain a search warrant, officers found 100 marijuana plants growing inside the house.

Kyllo pleaded guilty to a charge of growing marijuana, but he did so on the condition that he could challenge the legality of the heat detections. Kyllo was sentenced to five years and three months in prison.

The Supreme Court will hear Kyllo's appeal in January or February and will decide the case by next spring or summer.

In another new case, the court said it would decide whether Spanish-speaking people have a right to sue Alabama officials for discrimination because the state administers the driver's license written exam only in English.

A federal appeals court based in Atlanta ruled last fall that private individuals have the right to challenge discrimination on the basis of race or national origin in programs that receive federal money. The enforcement of that anti-bias law, the appeals court ruled, is not confined to actions taken by federal agencies.

The court also agreed to decide whether prison inmates who have acquired some knowledge of the law have a constitutional right to provide legal advice to other inmates who get into trouble.

A federal appeals court based in San Francisco ruled in November that such a right exists for a so-called "jailhouse lawyer," based on the right of inmates to associate with one another and share information.

The case involves an inmate at the Montana State Prison. The prisoner was disciplined for criticizing a guard in the course of providing legal advice to another prisoner who had been charged with assaulting that guard.

The court also said it would rule on the constitutionality of a federal law that treats a child born overseas differently in gaining U.S. citizenship, depending on whether the father or the mother is a U.S. citizen.

Under that law, challenged by a child born in Vietnam who came to this country as a refugee, a U.S. citizen who is the father of a child born abroad out of wedlock must do more to gain citizenship for that child than would a mother who is a U.S. citizen.

If the mother is the U.S. citizen, the child gains citizenship automatically. If it is the father who is the citizen, the child can become a citizen only if the father formally acknowledges parenthood before the child reaches age 18.

The Vietnamese national seeking citizenship in the case contends that this is unconstitutional discrimination based on the sex of the parent.

The justices had agreed to decide that question two years ago, but that case ended without a final ruling. At that time, five of the nine justices questioned the constitutionality of the sex-based difference in the treatment of fathers and mothers.

The case provides the first opportunity for the court to spell out further its new standard for judging sex bias claims, a standard first declared in 1996 when the court ordered the Virginia Military Institute to admit women.

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