Using a radio scanner app might be a crime

Nikki Grey Contributor
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Smart phone apps such as iScanner, PoliceStream and 5-0 Radio Police Scanner, which can be used as a police radio, might be illegal to use, depending on which state you live in.

“As you look across the United States, we have 50 different states, and every state has different laws on things like obstruction of justice,” Benjamin Wright, a legal scholar in data security and forensics technology at the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Md. told MSNBC in an interview published Wednesday.

Though it’s legal to own a police scanner radio, a mobile police scanner, such as the ones used in the smart phone apps, can be used to assist in the commission of a crime. A bank robber, for example, could use the smart phone app to listen in on police radio traffic in order to make a timely exit.

Some states, including Indiana, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota and New York, require a license from the Federal Communications Commission or permission from law enforcement in order to use a mobile police scanner. In several other states, such as California, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, it is illegal to use a mobile police scanner while committing another crime.

Other states don’t have clear laws addressing mobile police scanners at all, likely because the laws were written prior to the advent of smart phones.

“The outcome can often be a checkerboard, with very similar laws from one state to the next but different outcomes,” Wright said. “In one state if you make it to a court, the court will rule it doesn’t violate this law. Another court in another state will rule it does.”

The Munsie, Indiana detective who arrested Matthew A. Hale, 29,  last week after he allegedly fled the scene of a failed robbery, said the apps should be banned in order to keep would-be criminals from using them “to assist in their crimes.”

The cases involving the apps are fairly rare- the apps have only been around for a couple of years- but more cases might arise because the laws about them are unclear.