The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday that state law enforcement cannot obtain search warrants to use thermal-imaging scans to detect indoor marijuana-growing operations.
Georgia law allows for police to search for “tangible evidence,” and heat patterns inside a home or garage do not fit that definition, the court said in a unanimous opinion.
“Giving the word ‘tangible’ full effect, it appears that the General Assembly intended ‘tangible evidence’ to mean evidence that is essentially an object with material form that could be touched by a person,” Justice Harris Hines wrote. “That meaning does not include the remotely sensed heat at issue here.”
If the General Assembly wishes to authorize warrants to capture heat loss from structures, it has the power to do so, Hines wrote.
Steve Sadow, a criminal defense attorney, said the court correctly applied the law. “As far as state law enforcement is concerned, there will be no Georgia search warrants for the thermal imaging, unless the Legislature changes the law,” he said.
The court issued its ruling in a pending case against James Brundige of Athens, who has pleaded not guilty to manufacturing marijuana. A thermal-imaging scan conducted May 22, 2009, showed an abnormal amount of heat emanating from Brundige’s garage, court records say.
The ruling, however, did not help Brundige suppress items found in a search of his home. The opinion noted that a separate warrant obtained by police using information provided by an informant provided enough probable cause to justify the search.
Defense attorney Don Samuel said Georgia law has not kept up with evolving technologies, such as GPS devices that are used to track a suspect’s comings and goings — which, like heat, are not “tangible evidence.”
“Under Georgia law, it seems that a search warrant cannot be used for this purpose,” he said. “Georgia law needs to advance to the 21st century.”