Bad guys with guns pose a real danger to police, nobody denies that and we all want to keep police safe from harm. But that has never been, and never should be, a sufficient justification for violating the rule of law we live by embodied in our Constitution and protecting us from unwarranted illegal searches by police. That is not who we are as a nation and the further away we move from that principle, the closer we come to living in a police state. So how do you evaluate a technology that has the demonstrated ability to spot guns hidden on suspects, but which can be used by police to indiscriminately scan anyone to see what objects they’re carrying? Complicated question. But if we are true to the rule of law that governs us all, we cannot justify the use of a technology that has demonstrable benefits if it violates Constitutional guarantees. That is simply not how we operate.
NYPD is using a new technology known as “Tera Scanning” which provides officers with a device that scans a little used frequency in the light spectrum, and point the device at a person to see what light is reflected back and what light is blocked by solid objects. That’s a fancy way of saying that police now have what we can think of as portable X-ray machines that allow them to see hard physical objects we are carrying. It doesn’t use x-rays, that’s just my term to help make understandable what they are able to do and see. As you see from the picture above, the shape of an object can be detected without an actual physical search. This addresses objections to the NYPD’s infamous “Stop & Frisk” policy because there is neither a stop nor a frisk required. But let’s be real here, what police are doing can only be described as a “search” by any measure of that word. They are using technology to see things that the unaided eye could not, and they are seeing things that are in an area that everyone would agree carries a reasonable expectation of privacy. It’s a search, there’s no question about it. And the Constitution hasn’t changed just because technology has improved, a search still requires a warrant or the exigent circumstances that justify a warrantless search. That remains the law and hasn’t changed just because we’re better at searching.
Think about how police could use this. They could point it at anyone walking the streets in Ferguson, Missouri to see if they’re carrying a gun. But by doing this, they will also see other things we are carrying, everything from a camera or digital recording device, to a colostomy bag or a hypodermic syringe. However you may feel about the tradeoff between security and liberty, the rule of law we live by and founded in our Constitution, prohibits warrantless searches and the fact that a search is less invasive does NOT make it any more legal or morally justified. I think that cops should be able to use this kind of technology when they have the legal authority to search, and in no other situation. If they’re not allowed to search because they have no warrant or exigent circumstance justifying the lack of a warrant, then this new technology isn’t going to change that fact.
Read more about this technology here.