Are Police Scanner Apps Illegal?

Depends on why you use them and in which state

Police scanners are like radios that are specifically designed to tune into the frequencies used by local emergency services. In that same vein, police scanner apps let you listen in to both local and distant emergency services communications via your smartphone. Listening in on this type of semi-public communication is a hobby enjoyed by a lot of people, but police scanners are actually illegal in some jurisdictions.

Apps that essentially turn your phone into a radio scanner, thus providing easy access to emergency service, police, and other local short-range radio transmissions, are legal in some places, illegal in others, and using one in the wrong place can absolutely land you in hot water.

Policeman talking into radio
 Stockbyte/Getty Images

What Are Scanner Apps?

It’s important to differentiate between police scanner apps, which are also sometimes called radio scanner apps, and completely unrelated scanner apps that just use your phone’s camera to “scan” documents. If you search your app store of choice for scanner apps, you may run into both of these types of apps.

Apps that are designed to scan documents are absolutely legal, unless you use them scan something you aren’t supposed to. However, scanner apps that allow you to listen in on emergency services communications exist in a huge gray area.

How Do Police Radio Scanner Apps Work?

Physical police scanners are basically just radios that can tune into different frequencies than normal radios. There's actually a whole world of transmissions you can listen to outside the regular AM and FM radio stations that you're used to, and the police scanners are just the tip of the iceberg.

Since your phone can't actually tune into radio transmissions, an app can't literally turn your phone into a police scanner. Instead, you download an app, and that app provides access to police scanner transmissions via 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 provide access to them via the internet. It then becomes possible for a smartphone app to grab that stream and play it back anywhere in the world.

In addition to police communications, a typical scanner app may also provide access to fire and other emergency services, aviation transmissions, railway communications, amateur radio broadcasts, and more.

The Legality of Operating a Scanner App

While listening in on emergency services and other communications isn't for everyone, it's easy to see how it can be entertaining to a lot of people. However, there is a very real and very important question as to whether or not listening to these transmissions is actually legal. It's a very complicated question and as always, the only way to be 100 percent safe is to contact a lawyer who is intimately familiar with the law in the jurisdiction where you live.

In some jurisdictions, radio scanners are legal, but only if you have the proper hobbyist radio license. Some states that fall into this category include Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and New York. However, laws can change, so make sure to check with an expert in your area, or read the relevant laws or codes yourself.

In other places, there are no laws against the use of these apps, and some only outlaw scanner apps if you use them inappropriately.

In these states, you will typically find that law enforcement deals with radio scanners with a wink and a nod, but you had better believe that they will clamp down if you use one in the commission of a crime. In fact, even having a scanner app on your phone can result in a completely unrelated charge if you are detained or arrested for something that has absolutely nothing to do with the app.

Some states that have enacted laws in the past that specifically addressed the use of a police scanner in the commission of a crime include California, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. Laws change all the time though, so don't assume you're in the clear unless you've actually checked into the current laws in your area yourself.

Why Are Police Scanner Apps Sometimes Illegal?

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

When things fell apart inside the store, and the police were called, he attempted to flee the scene ahead of the police. When he was caught, he was charged separately for his illicit use of the scanner app in addition to his part in the botched robbery.

Police Scanners Are Only Legal Until They're Illegal

By now, it’s probably pretty clear that while scanner apps can be fun and useful, you absolutely have to check into the legality of their use where you live. If there are no laws against radio scanners, and no laws requiring a license to operate one, then you’re probably fine. However, there are additional concerns that might crop up.

The problem is that even if scanner apps are legal where you live, using one can be illegal depending on how you use it. For instance, in the aforementioned case with the botched robbery, the getaway driver listening in and trying to outsmart the cops was interpreted as obstructing justice. And since the concept of ‘obstruction of justice’ is open to interpretation, you could possibly be charged with that, or other things, simply for having these apps installed on your phone if you are ever arrested for any reason at all.