Like many laws, the rules that apply to police scanners vary from state to state. And while it’s not illegal for any U.S person to buy and own a scanner, there are some limitations to its usage.
The 1934 Communications Act made it clear that the airwaves in the U.S are public property. But since some communications should remain private, such as in cell phones and some military bands, these frequencies are blocked on the scanners that people buy.
Nevertheless, it’s completely legal to use police scanners in the U.S. But the circumstances in which people are allowed to use them are not absolute.
Using Police Scanners While Driving
The states that impose restrictions on using the police scanners on a motor vehicle include Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, and Minnesota.
There are some minor differences, but the substance is essentially the same. Generally, a person who is not a member of the police department or police force, or an official who does not have the proper written authorization, is not allowed to possess, equip, install, or transport any mobile radio set that is capable of receiving or transmitting signals, inside of or on any motor vehicle.
An emergency vehicle or crime watch vehicle designated as so by the proper authorities, including fire department vehicles, vehicles used by law enforcement officers, the FBI, and the Armed Forces, and crime watch vehicles with written approval from the sheriff or chief of police, are exempted from the law. Furthermore, these restrictions do not apply to news reporters or recognized news publications that cover the news on a full-time basis.
So for any person or organization without proper authorization, it’s illegal to use police scanners in an automobile or any motor vehicle. If found in violation of the state law, the offense would be considered as a misdemeanor with fines ranging from $50 (Kentucky) to $1000 (New York).
Using Police Scanners in the Furtherance of a Crime
Since all other communications on the airwaves are public, anyone who owns a police scanner can access police communications, fire departments, and emergency services. If a person listening in uses the information to aid in committing a crime, they can have additional charges besides the crime they were committing.
The states that have laws regarding this include California, New Jersey, Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Nebraska, and West Virginia.
In addition, some states like Michigan and Vermont prohibit the possession and use of a radio receiving set by persons who have been convicted of felonies. The punishments vary greatly, with Michigan imposing a fine of $1000 and/or jail time of not more than a year, and Vermont imposing a fine of $250 and/or jail time of not more than 30 days.
To reiterate, the possession and use of police scanners is legal but regulated such as in the circumstances above. While we have covered the basics above, it’s still best to check the specific state law as they have their nuances.