The Use of Police Scanners Is Legal in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania
There are no regulations pertaining to the use of police scanners in either Pennsylvania or in Pittsburgh, so they’re effectively legal. In the past, people who wanted to listen to police and emergency service radio transmissions needed to purchase and learn to use expensive, hard to use equipment. Nowadays, anyone can download one of the many police scanner apps available on the Internet and use their smart phone to listen to police frequencies.
These smart phone applications do not intercept police signals. Instead, the apps enable the user to stream content from one of the thousands of police frequencies across the country. This gives users the advantage of listening to transmissions from distant jurisdictions. Strictly speaking, there is nothing illegal about the mere use of police scanners or scanner apps, but under some circumstances it could get you in trouble with the law.
Don’t Use Police Scanners to Interfere With Police Operations
Over the last few years, more and more suspects have been using police scanner apps to elude capture. In the summer of 2014, an officer in Westmorland County entered a house to make an arrest. As he announced his entry on the radio, he heard his own voice coming from a backroom, where the suspects were listening to the transmissions.
Pennsylvania statute 18 § 5105, defining the crime of hindering of apprehension or prosecution, provides that: “A person commits an offense if, with intent to hinder the apprehension, prosecution, conviction or punishment of another for crime or violation of the terms of probation, parole, intermediate punishment or Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, he (…) warns the other of impending discovery or apprehension.”
Thus, if an officer is looking for a suspect, and one of his friends uses a scanner app to help the suspect escape, the friend could be arrested for violating 18 § 5105. So, although the use of a police scanner in and of itself is legal, using it to interfere with police operations is a punishable offense.
More and More Police Forces Are Encrypting Transmissions
Citing concerns over the privacy of both suspects and crime victims, some police departments have started encrypting their radio transmissions. Encrypted radio transmissions sound distorted through scanners, and only listeners with the proper encryption key can hear the actual transmissions.
Some claim that unhindered public access to the police’s radio transmissions increases public safety, helps journalists, and allows for the the police to be held accountable for their actions. But the police are under no duty to make their transmissions public. According to Freedom of Information expert David Cuillier of the University of Arizona, “there’s no law saying that scanner traffic is public (…) and members of the public don’t have a specific right to listen in.”
The Pennsylvania State police started to encrypt radio transmissions in 2010.
While police transmissions remain accessible to scanners in Pittsburgh, the trend within the State is towards encrypting police transmissions.
Since 2014, the New Kensington, Arnold, Lower Burrell, and Upper Burrell police departments in Westmorland County have been encrypting their radio broadcasts. Allentown has been encrypting its police transmissions since 2012. The Allentown police Chief, Roger MacLean stated that: “With this new system the criminal element will not know where our officers are located. It will also make it more difficult for them to try to judge how many officers are on duty at any given time.”