Police Scanners similar to radios specifically designed to tune in to frequencies used by local emergency services. In the same vein, police scanner apps allow you to listen to both local and remote emergency messages through your smartphone. Listening to this type of semi-public communication is a hobby enjoyed by many people, but in some jurisdictions, police scanners are actually illegal.

Apps that essentially turn your phone into radio scanner , thus providing easy access to emergency services, police and other short-range local radio transmissions, are legal in some places and illegal in others, and use in the wrong place can lead to unauthorized access. You are in hot water.

Policeman talking on the radio
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What are scanner apps?

It is important to distinguish police scanner apps which are sometimes called radio scanner applications and completely unrelated applications scanner, who are just using your phone’s camera for » scanning » documents. If you search your app store for scanner apps, you may come across both types of apps.

Apps designed to scan documents are completely legal as long as you don’t use them to scan things you don’t need. However, scanner apps that let you listen to emergency messages are in a huge gray area.

How do police radio scanner apps work?

Physical police scanners are basically radios that can tune into frequencies other than normal. There is actually a whole world of broadcasts you can listen to outside of the normal AM and FM radio stations you are used to, and police scanners are just the tip of the iceberg.

Because your phone can’t actually tune in to radio broadcasts, the app can’t literally turn your phone into a police scanner. Instead, you download the app and it gives you access to police scanner transmissions over the internet.

The way it usually works is that people with access to police scanners or shortwave radios receive police scanner transmissions, encode them, and then make them available over the Internet. The smartphone app can then capture that stream and play it anywhere in the world.

In addition to police communications, a typical scanner application can also provide access to fire and other emergency services, aviation broadcasts, railroad communications, amateur radio broadcasts, and more.

Legality of using the scanner app

While listening to emergency services and other communications isn’t for everyone, it’s easy to see how interesting it can be for many people. However, there is a very real and very important question as to whether listening to these broadcasts is actually legal. This is a very complex issue, and as always, the only way to be 100% safe is to contact a lawyer who is well versed in the laws of the country where you live.

In some jurisdictions, radio scanners are legal, but only if you have the appropriate amateur radio license. Some states that fall into this category include Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and New York. However, laws may change, so be sure to consult with an expert in your field, or read the relevant laws or codes yourself.

Elsewhere, there are no laws against these apps, and some only ban scanning apps if you use them inappropriately.

In these states, you’ll typically find law enforcement dealing with wink and nod radio scanners, but you’d better believe they’ll get busted if you use one of them in a crime. In fact, even having a scanning app on your phone can lead to a completely unrelated charge if you get held up or arrested for something that has absolutely nothing to do with the app.

Some states that have enacted laws in the past that specifically dealt with the use of a police scanner in the commission of a crime include California, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. However, laws change all the time, so don’t assume you’re in the public domain unless you’ve checked the current laws in your area yourself.

Why are police scanner apps sometimes illegal?

The problem is that the criminals actually used these apps to try and outsmart the police. In one such instance, a man was waiting in the car while his friend entered the store to rob him. While waiting, he listened to local police channels through an app on his phone.

When things fell apart inside the store and the police were called, he tried to flee the scene ahead of the police. When he was caught, he was charged separately for illegally using a scanner app in addition to his involvement in a bogus robbery.

Police scanners are legal as long as they are not illegal

It’s probably pretty clear by now that while scanner apps can be fun and useful, you absolutely need to check the legality of using them where you live. If there are no laws against radio scanners, and no laws requiring a license to use them, then you’re probably fine. However, there are additional issues that may arise.

The problem is that even if scanner apps are legal where you live, using it maybe be illegal depending on how you use it. For example, in the above case with the bogus robbery, the asylum driver who listened and tried to outsmart the cops was interpreted as an obstruction of justice. And since the concept of «obstruction of justice» is open to interpretation, you can be accused of this or other things, simply by having these applications installed on your phone, if you are ever arrested for any reason.

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