Many Michigan drivers have questions regarding the legality of after-market devices such as police scanners and radar detectors in their motor vehicles. A police scanner can intercept communications on law enforcement radio channels so that the driver may gain knowledge as to the location of police officers or where a crime might be in progress. A radar detector can alert the driver when a device emitting signals is in his or her vicinity (e.g. police radar gun used to check speed) so that he or she can govern their actions accordingly. These devices are legally available for purchase on the internet or in most brick-and-mortar stores. The biggest advantage to the driver is to know when he or she can and cannot engage in violations of the Michigan Vehicle Code such as speeding if law enforcement is not in the area. Given the opportunities for mischief, are these devices legal to have in a motor vehicle?
Prior to 2006, it was illegal for anyone to possess a police radio scanner in a motor vehicle unless a permit was issued by the Michigan State Police. However, the Michigan Legislature amended the statute to only prohibit certain individuals from possessing police scanners or prohibit certain purposes as follows:
- "A person who has been convicted of 1 or more felonies during the preceding 5 years shall not carry or have in his or her possession a radio receiving set that will receive signals sent on a frequency assigned by the federal communications commission of the United States for police or other law enforcement, fire-fighting, emergency medical, federal, state, or local corrections, or homeland security purposes. This subsection does not apply to a person who is licensed as an amateur radio operator by the federal communications commission. A person who violates this subsection is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $1,000.00, or both." MCL 750.508(1).
- "A person shall not carry or have in his or her possession in the commission or attempted commission of a crime a radio receiving set that will receive signals sent on a frequency assigned by the federal communications commission of the United States for police or other law enforcement, fire-fighting, emergency medical, federal, state, or local corrections, or homeland security purposes. A person who violates this subsection is guilty of a crime as follows:"
- "If this subsection is violated in the commission or attempted commission of a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of at least 93 days but less than 1 year, the person is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $1,000.00, or both." MCL 750.508(2)(a).
- "If this subsection is violated in the commission or attempted commission of a misdemeanor or felony punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of 1 year or more, the person is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years or a fine of not more than $2,000.00, or both." MCL 750.508(2)(b).
- This subsection does NOT apply if the person in possession of the police scanner was committing or attempting to commit a misdemeanor punishable by less than 93 days in jail. MCL 750.508(3).
The statute placing restrictions on police scanners DOES NOT place limits on the use of radar detectors. MCL 750.508(4). The Michigan Supreme Court determined that a "radio receiving set" as defined by this statute does not apply to radar detectors "because the statute protects the confidentiality of police communications but not electronic surveillance by the police." People v Gilbert, 414 Mich 191; 324 NW2d 834 (1982). This makes sense because the primary purpose why most drivers would install a "fuzzbuster" in their vehicles would be to ensure that they are moving at or below speed limit if a police radar is detected in the area (e.g. "aiding in the commission or attempted commission" of speeding). However, federal law does prohibit the use of radar detectors in commercial vehicles even when on the roadways in the State of Michigan. 49 CFR §392.71.
Although police scanners and radar detectors may be legal for use in motor vehicles, the use of "radar jammers" are not. While a radar detector's purpose is to find and locate the emission of radio signals, the radar jammer's purpose is to actually interfere with the radar signal being emitted from its source. Federal law states that "[n]o person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this chapter or operated by the United States Government." 47 U.S.C. §333.
A person who is found guilty of willful or malicious interference with radar signals in federal court is punished as follows:
- For a first offense, a misdemeanor conviction punishable by a fine up to $10,000.00, or up to one year in federal prison, or both. 47 U.S.C. §501.
- For a second or subsequent offense, a felony conviction punishable by a fine up to $10,000.00, or up to two years in federal prison, or both. 47 U.S.C. §501.
- An additional fine of $500.00 may be imposed in addition to any other penalties for each and every day that this offense occurs. 47 U.S.C. §502.
Police scanners and radar detectors are very helpful devices, but it is the responsibility of every Michigan driver to ensure that they are using these tools within the confines of the law. One should not expect leniency from the police officer if they happen to notice your device during a traffic stop. If the prosecutor charges someone with the crime of unlawful use of a police scanner, then it is possible that the accused can be convicted of a misdemeanor or felony resulting in fines, probation or even incarceration. If a driver falls into this predicament, then it is absolutely imperative to seek the services of a skilled criminal defense lawyer that can protect his or her rights. It may be possible to negotiate a resolution with the prosecutor that can reduce or eliminate the criminal charge outright.
If you have any questions about the legality of police scanners and radar detectors in motor vehicles or you require legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC today.