Are Police Scanners Legal in Los Angeles, California?

by Ambrosio Rodriguez | Apr 19, 2022 | California Law
Are Police Scanners Legal in Los Angeles, California?

The short answer is yes, the possession and use of a scanner are legal in California. However, it is illegal to use one during the commission of a crime, such as to use the messages received to aid in the escape of custody. It is also illegal to install or use a scanner inside a motor vehicle in some states. There are other important considerations to note as well that pertain to Los Angeles specifically, so read on to learn more.

What is a Scanner?

While these devices have been around for years, some people may not be quite clear on what a scanner is exactly. A scanner is a radio receiver. It “scans” or checks many channels of communication quickly and can allow you to listen to two-way radio calls. Police, fire, and other agencies tend to use two-way radios, which use short transmissions.

In recent years, these scanners have become easily accessible, available online, and now have increasingly advanced features. These scanners can be portable or made for placement in your vehicle. They can be used in a home or desktop form as well.

Since these scanners are legal, you might wonder why someone (a law-abiding person) would even want or need a scanner. Some people simply want to hear or know what is going on around them. Others have professional needs, like police agencies and firefighters who need to be able to know what’s going on (even if off duty) and to communicate with or between neighboring agencies. Tow trucks also may want to use them to know when there is a wreck in an area where they could be needed; security guards may listen to help protect their assigned area.

When is Scanner Use Illegal?

Sections 630 to 637.9 of the California Penal Code outline violations related to the use and possession of scanners, while Section 636.5 specifically deals with Police Radio Communications and what is considered a prohibited interception. Violations within this section are misdemeanor offenses and are therefore punishable by no more than one year in jail or by fines.

Local Laws in Los Angeles

While the California Penal Code has laid out the violations and prohibited interceptions under California law, Los Angeles has taken it upon itself to go a step further and has created local ordinances that also deal with the use of police scanners. Two local ordinances in Los Angeles restrict the use of scanners in the city.

Sec. 52.44 makes it illegal for the general public to listen through a scanner if what they are listening to is an official message transmitted by one of the following agencies: the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Fire Department, or any law enforcement agency over a radio “transmitting station owned or operated by such city or agency.”

There is a mechanism where you may be able to apply for a permit to listen to those types of radio messages; however, those permits must be issued in writing by the Chief of Police and are completely discretionary. They are usually only issued if or when the mayor believes it would be in the public interest to issue them.

The biggest concern for the City of Los Angeles and California as a whole is to keep these types of communications from being intercepted by people who are doing so to commit a crime. Sec. 52.46 outlaws any use or interception of these transmissions for financial benefit – whether they use it for themselves or relay that information to another person.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney for Assistance

If you are unsure if a scanner you use or would like to use is legal, or if you have been charged with unlawful use of a police scanner, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to assist you immediately.