Fourth Amendment Watch: MI Police Use Thermal Imager to Search Car for Firearm

Police Thermal Imaging Gun Detector Search fourth amendment

courtesy and Saginaw Police Department

A police officer in Michigan has used a thermal imaging device to locate a firearm in the trunk of a suspect’s car. Police received a report of shots fired at a Saginaw restaurant.

A nearby Saginaw Township police officer who was leaving Covenant HealthCare received a suspect vehicle description and stopped the vehicle on Woodbridge near Cooper, Gerow said.

When city police showed up, Gerow said, a new thermal imaging device was used and detected what appeared to be a firearm in the trunk of the silver rental car.

Given that the officer reportedly had a description of the suspect, it can be plausibly argued that he had probably cause to search the vehicle. The imaging device then detected the heat signature of the recently-fired weapon. So this isn’t a “gun detector” and wouldn’t reveal a cold concealed firearm.

But now there’s this:

Some phone cases give you more battery life or wireless charging. But how about a case that can scan people for hidden weapons?

That’s exactly what Royal Holdings, a Los Angeles-based startup focused on real-time intelligence and threat detection, and run by former intelligence contractor Barry Oberholzer, aims to do with its SWORD smartphone attachment.

The company has created a case that goes around either an iPhone 8 Plus or Pixel 2 XL and uses the phone’s audio sound waves as a sort of sonar to detect whether someone is carrying a gun, knife or explosive device. The case includes an array of 18 antennas that can create an image profile based on the radio frequency waves.

Assuming this thing isn’t vaporware, a cynic could think up all kinds of ways something like the SWORD could be mis-used. Police officers could use it as a stealthy way around Fourth Amendment protections. Criminals could use it to make sure no one in a store is armed before committing a robbery. Or to target someone who is before they do.

We’re living in interesting times.




  1. avatar Jeremy D says:

    Definitely vaporware. You ever seen those imaging machines at the airport? They’re huge

    1. avatar DaveL says:

      Police love their magic Probable Cause generators. They don’t care if it works, as long as the courts uphold the search. See “Quadra Tracker”.

      1. avatar LarryinTX says:

        This sounds like something magic, that’s for sure. Got ya a wee handheld device gives you a thermal picture of a gun through a metal trunk lid? I don’t think so, you are actually going to have to show me that in person before I’ll believe it, even if the claim is that it detected a machine gun right after 500 rounds were run through it, it was white-hot.

      2. avatar arc says:

        Thermal doesn’t look through solid surfaces and glass will reflect a thermal image back at the device like a mirror. The only time it can see through something is if the object is warming something within line of sight, I.E someone leaning on a wall.

        I got plenty of hands on time with thermal toys in Afghanistan, they are good shit, expensive shit, but they aren’t magic shit.

        A pizza delivery box would hide hot objects. A lunch box would do the same.

      3. avatar Stereodude says:

        I think you mean Quadro Tracker.

        1. avatar DaveL says:

          That’s the one. See also ‘ADE 651’, ‘GT200’, ‘Sniffex’, ‘MOLE’, and ‘Alpha 6’.

  2. avatar Rokurota says:

    Kyllo! Kyllo!

    1. avatar patrulje says:

      Yep, my thoughts exactly.

      Kyllo vs. U.S

    2. avatar Chicago Steve says:

      Difficult to find a case more on point than Kyllo! But this whole case sounds like BS, but let’s face it, could also be just really bad reporting. Literally the definition of fake news.

    3. avatar Chicago Steve says:

      Update: Just spoke with a MI statie I’m good friends with and knows the whole story, which is backed up by some other news articles.

      The police stopped the vehicle after multiple traffic violations, and they then found two handguns in the passenger compartment after conducting a search (unknown probable cause). They assessed that neither of these guns had been recently fired. They then OPENED the trunk, and since it had a lot of rubbish, they used a thermal imager to look for any hot spots – i.e. a recently fired gun, and found what they were looking for.

      This makes a lot more sense than the article referenced here. Not blaming TTAG at all, just the bad writing in the original article. It’s a non-story unfortunately, but started good discussions nonetheless.

      1. avatar DaveL says:

        That makes a LOT more sense.

      2. avatar Sian says:

        I bet they were given permission to search.

        Few people will deny permission, even when they know they’ve got weapons/drugs in the car.

        (my expert opinion based on watching lots of COPS)

  3. avatar Binder says:

    I detect a high level a BS with this one. How can a “warm” spot in a trunk be enough for a search. There is NO way a thermal imager can detect the shape of a firearm threw a metal truck lid.

    1. avatar JK says:

      Um… both the receiver and barrel would be warm and would appear an awful lot like a gun through thermal. And trunk lids are aluminum… pretty thin. Thermal imagers work through shipping containers, so a trunk lid is nothing. In any event, that’s all irrelevant. The probable cause arose from the fact that the individual driving the car matched the description of the suspect.

      1. avatar Geoff "Mess with the Bull, get the Horns" PR says:

        “Um… both the receiver and barrel would be warm and would appear an awful lot like a gun through thermal.”

        What’s directly under the trunk of a sedan, usually?

        A hot exhaust system and muffler.

        Camo your gat by placing it in the trunk directly above those things…

      2. avatar DaveL says:

        Thermal imagers work through shipping containers

        Citation very much f***ing needed.

        1. avatar robb says:

          You didn’t see Eraser?!

        2. avatar uncommon_sense says:


          Thermal imagers do NOT work through metal. Rather, X-Ray imagers work through metal shipping containers.

        3. avatar Arc says:

          I know beyond all doubt that thermal doesn’t see through walls ala hollywood. Now Xray booths for your car, maybe.

      3. avatar Indiana Tom says:

        And trunk lids are aluminum…
        They are….?
        magnet sticks to mine.

        1. avatar Rattlerjake says:

          My laugh of the day! Love the magnet reference!

          These comments need up and down vote – yours would get maxed out with upvotes!

      4. avatar LarryinTX says:

        Until you get past $100K prices, trunk lids are sheet steel, but I don’t see that making a difference. Through a metal lid, you may see the heat, but it would look a lot like a hot trunk lid. There is no magic, guys.

        1. avatar ASETech says:

          Collision Repair tech here to say that there are plenty of aluminum deck lids, hoods, and lift gates on rigs that aren’t super expensive. Aluminum has been used for these parts on Fords, Hondas, GMs, Toyotas, etc for the last 15 years. Aluminum is becoming more and more common.

      5. avatar neiowa says:

        A TIC does not “see” thru ANYTHING. IF a hot object is on the backside of a piece of metal and in direct contact with it some heat could soak thru. Amazing devices but a miracle.

        1. avatar DavoMoto says:

          Exactly! Every TIC I have ever used (flir and MSA) doesn’t even work through glass, let alone any kind of metal. This whole story smells of bullshit.

      6. avatar Curtis in IL says:

        Only aluminum trunk lid I ever saw was on an airplane.

        1. avatar Stereodude says:

          There are some cars with aluminum bodies and aluminum trunks, but it still doesn’t matter. A thermal camera/imager can’t see through metal whether steel or aluminum.

    2. avatar barnbwt says:

      Yeah; that still-warm gun could have just as easily been a still-warm dead hooker.

      Or a cell phone running on empty. Or a freshly-baked cake. Or a cat. Or a rat in a cat.

      Or a big steaming pile of “mah authoritay” after the fact ass-covering for an illegal search. If it wasn’t a thermal camera, it’d be a dog ‘indicating’ on ‘gun shot residue.’

      I wonder how many cars they popped open before they got the right one? No one needs to know if they didn’t find anything in the others, of course.

    3. avatar Weapon Of War says:

      Because your rights are an illusion. The romper stomper copper’s will do whatever the fuck they please, and what are we going to do about it?

  4. avatar JK says:

    There was probably cause that the trunk contained evidence of a crime. Plain and simple. If the officer simply detained the suspect and opened the trunk, this wouldn’t be newsworthy. The use of a new thermal imaging device is interesting. However, the use of the device in this context was 100% permissible under SCOTUS’ interpretations of the 4th Amendment.

    1. avatar Xaq Fixx says:

      What was the probable cause that the truck contained evidence of a crime? Without that, it is an illegal search. With that they could have legally searched the trunk without their new toy and this is just self indulgent headline grabbing PR nonsense (Maybe they should hire TSA’s Blogger Bob as their press agent).

      As Rokurota referenceds SCOTUS determined held in Kyllo v. United States that thermal cameras do constitute a search and require a warrant (or probable cause) and therefore cannot be used to create probable cause. If they couldn’t open the trunk, they couldn’t use the thermal camera. Matching a description (of a vehicle or an individual) is not typically Probable Cause. It would provide reasonable articulable suspicion, which would allow the LEO to detain the individual, but not the more strict standards of Probable Cause. BUT The article suggests that law enforcement were able to search the trunk BECAUSE the thermal camera detected the heat signature of a gun. That would be a bad search.

      Far more likely is that this was a bad search and the unnamed officers just weren’t trained to know they needed probable cause. Either way – you are correct, ” If the officer simply detained the suspect and opened the trunk, this wouldn’t be newsworthy. ” It would have been another bad search that they got away with.

    2. avatar LarryinTX says:

      The legalities I can leave to someone else, here. I do not believe that a handheld battery powered gadget can differentiate between a gun and a takeout dinner. If LE is trying to pass off such patent and obvious BS as the truth, they need to be called on it. Show me!

      1. avatar neiowa says:

        Guy you are stuck at rotary dial era. Top of the line Firefighting TIC; By selecting mode it will ID for you the hottest or coldest item in the field of view. Great search tool. Depending on environmental conditions can track footsteps, unoccupied car seat that recently had an occupant. The seat of a fire within a 2000 plume or coldest spot in a freezer. All about the delta T and heat transfer. What to try this X380 out I can set you up for $8k

        The also can not “see” thru glass

        1. avatar DavoMoto says:

          ^This, so much this. I have used several different TICs as a firefighter, both flir and MSA, and none of them work through glass, let alone metal, or even drywall. TICs are amazing tools, but they aren’t x-rays, no way one is gonna “see” through a car trunk.

    3. avatar DaveL says:

      There was probably cause that the trunk contained evidence of a crime.

      What probable cause? The image of a gun picked up through a closed trunk on a thermal imager? Might as well be the sworn testimony of a talking unicorn. It never happened. Utter fantasy.

      1. avatar Hannibal says:

        Did you read the rest of the blurb? The officer was not just scanning random vehicles, he saw a vehicle that matched the description of one that was just involved in a shooting.

        1. avatar DaveL says:

          Then it’s a story about stopping a car matching the description of a subject vehicle. That may or may not be enough, depending on how detailed the description was, how common such cars are, and its proximity in space and time to the alleged crime.

          But this nonsense about seeing a gun through the trunk lid adds nothing. Might as well get out your crystal ball.

  5. avatar L says:

    “uses the phone’s audio sound waves as a sort of sonar to detect whether someone is carrying a gun, knife or explosive device”

    That is the most BS thing I’ve ever read. I’ll believe it when I see it.

    1. avatar pwrserge says:

      Knowing what I do about the quality of these sorts of devices… No way… Physics doesn’t work like that. It might detect a large chunk of something, but telling that it’s a gun? No way in hell.

      1. avatar Geoff "Mess with the Bull, get the Horns" PR says:

        All they will see is a diffuse ‘blob’ of color in the viewfinder…

        1. avatar Stereodude says:

          If even that much.

    2. avatar rosignol says:

      That’s my take.

      Whoever came up with that watched “The Dark Knight” a few times too many.

    3. avatar EnDangerEd says:

      My BS meter is maxed out…. “sonar” would only give you a surface paint of the object you scanned…. it would NOT reveal much if anything of what was behind that surface. So concealed carry would still be just that, concealed. I have several TICs and if they are hand held, read easily portable, they will detect heat signitures out in the open but even 1/8″ of plywood will conceal something warm unless there is direct contact with the warm object so that it “prints”… If it happened as written it was an illegal search.

  6. avatar Howdy1 says:

    Isn’t probable cause backed up by a warrant?
    Maybe you’re talking about reasonable suspicion?
    Even with reasonable suspicion, aren’t there specifics about how that’s conducted?
    I could be wrong about all the above. I am sure a real lawyer would be happy to educate us.

  7. avatar Smith Wesson says:

    Cars generally have a lower expectation of privacy as far as the 4th is concerned. I assume, based on precedent, that this will not be considered a search within the meaning of the 4th amendment.

  8. avatar Every Black Robed Copsucker (yeah, it's me, FedUp, playing the name game again) says:

    The thermal imager detected something warm in the trunk, right above the muffler!

    If that’s not probable cause for a warrantless search, I don’t know what is.

  9. avatar Stereodude says:

    Please… The article is a fantasy. A thermal imager can’t see through a metal trunk.

    This sounds like a variation on the _____ detecting dog that gets a cue from the handler and sits on command so they can then search the car.

    I’m tempted to buy a Leupold LTO tracker and head to the range with my gat and prove it’s all BS.

  10. avatar Sam I Am says:

    “…suspect vehicle description…” Sounds suspect to me. Suppose it was your car that looked exactly like one fleeing a crime scene. Now you are pulled over for “nothing”, and treated as a criminal suspect. You are now “detained”, but not arrested. You have not been identified by any of the police who called in the original description of the fleeing auto; you are merely detained. And now the police search your car with a thermal imaging device, before anyone else shows up to assist in suspect identification. What is the probable cause? Driving while looking like someone else? You just came from the shooting range, and your gun is warm. Or the cop actually saw only a blob (muffler?), and decided it “might be a gun”. And why a thermal device, rather than a simple demand to have the driver open the trunk? Lack of cooperation? Does the device capture all the relevant data (saving a pic of the image?) to ensure “chain of custody” (as in was there actually an image, or just officer say-so).

    Nah, thinking a good Philadelphia lawyer could get this dropped post haste.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      Well, duh. It was a RENTAL car, right? Absolutely bland, featureless, looks just like every other car on the road, you can’t even tell what make it is.

    2. avatar neiowa says:

      Well in this country you can now get a carte blanche order to investigate ANYTHING and destroy anyone you like because a cabal of progs hate the guy Americans ELECTED.. Charge and convict on a previously refused tax case from TWELVE YEARS AGO. What would our fathers of 1776 think about this?

      How long does the IRS say to keep your tax records? SIX YEARS
      “4) K records for 6 years if you do not report income that you should report.”

      1. avatar Sam I Am says:

        “How long does the IRS say to keep your tax records? SIX YEARS”

        Long ago, as a new small business owner, I asked that question to “my” accountant. His advice: “Keep the copies of the filing documents and supporting documents for ten years; keep filing documents without supporting documents for 15 years”. I asked about the IRS rule being different. The accountant stated that should an IRS audit turn up a problem, they can go back to when that problem might have first appeared (trying to educate an IRS official on rules about audits is self-destructive). I noted there was also a rule that if fraud was suspected, the IRS could go back to forever. The accountant noted that if I intended to commit fraud, it was stupid to keep records at all.

    3. avatar Curtis in IL says:

      I watch “Live PD” on the weekends, which makes me an expert on law enforcement procedure.

      I have seen cops make a felony stop (guns drawn, vehicle occupants pulled out, hands up and handcuffed) on a car that matched the description given to them after an armed robbery.

      Fourth Amendment violation? I don’t know, but they weren’t afraid to put it on live TV.

  11. avatar FB says:

    Thermal? I don’t think that is the proper term.
    Thermal is temperature based. You may be thinking UWB imaging or xray.

  12. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    Okay people, basic lesson in physics:

    (1) Thermal imagers do NOT “see through” a metal container. At absolute best a thermal imager could indicate a warm/hot region of a metal container which would in turn indicate a warm object inside. And the size of the warm region would give some sense of how large the warm object was inside. And even then, the object would have to be giving off a LOT of heat. Note that a thermal imager would NOT indicate a specific shape/outline of a warm object inside a metal container.

    (2) Ultrasound sonic waves could produce a rough outline of a metallic object against a human body. While the ultrasonic emitter could be quite small, I am not sure that the ultrasonic detector could be the size of a smart-phone case.

    (3) Very high frequency radio waves (in the Terahertz range) could produce a decent outline of a metallic object against a human body. As with ultrasound, the emitter could be quite small. I am thinking that the detector could be fairly small as well and might very well be able to fit on a smart-phone case.

    Note: in order for any wave (sonic or electromagnetic) to bounce off a metallic object and produce enough resolution to indicate the outline of the object, the wavelength of the wave has to be a tiny fraction of the smallest dimension that you want to measure on the target object. Thus, if you want to measure/image the trigger guard of a handgun (which is about 1/8 th inch or 3 mm thick), you would need sound or electromagnetic waves whose wavelengths would be on the order of 0.01 inches or 0.3 mm. That means ultrasound sound saves or Terahertz electromagnetic waves.

    1. avatar Sam I Am says:

      Good stuff to know. Thanx

  13. avatar Jimbob says:

    I have one of the LTO’s.
    It is hard to spot a human thru a (insulated) wood wall.
    Looking at my car when it has just been shut off, and you tell the heat at the engine compartment, but absolutely no details of the engine.
    It does work fairly well for what it was designed for, to locate critters, (2 or 4 legged) in the brush.

  14. avatar Mushdogs says:

    No. Not buying it. The story states that the incident occurred at 1:35 pm on Wendnesday, August 22. You know what you get when you look at metal panel, covered in shiny paint on an August afternoon with a thermal imaging device? Heat from external sources reflected back at you, including your own. Could a TIC “see” a heat source through the metal and reflective paint of a trunk? Yes, sure. If the source is of sufficient heat to radiate hotter and overcome the reflective energy coming off the outside trunk lid. That would have to be a significant amount of heat. I’d buy this story better on a cold January afternoon.

    1. avatar FedUp says:

      My first thought was exhaust, but Mushdogs noticed the obvious:

      The horizontal painted surfaces of the car are hotter than the exhaust warmed floor of the trunk, just after high noon in August.

  15. avatar ACP_armed says:

    Considering everyone else has hit the nail on the head, I’ll just leave this. BS!

    1. avatar Paul says:

      I came to the comments section just to say BS. Glad I’m not the only one who sees through this.

  16. avatar GS650G says:

    A decent attorney should be able to get the search tossed.

  17. avatar Timothy k Toroian says:

    GS650G has a point. My question is how does a “warm” gun create a recognizable heat signature over a hot exhaust? Or a hot spot on trunk floor?

  18. avatar Ragnarredbeard says:

    Wouldn’t it more likely have picked up the heat from the exhaust system that runs under the trunk?

  19. avatar el Possum Guapo Herr Standartenfuher" they think we're making pizza' " Oberst von Burn says:

    It don’t matter, if the cop said he found a gun by using an electric guitar, he found a gun by using an electric guitar. 7 months later with 5 court appearances down and $8,500 out of pocket , you prove he didn’t use an electric guitar to find the gun but your still fucked anyway, because ITS THE LAW

    1. avatar DaveL says:

      If the search gets tossed the law is that the evidence gets excluded, usually along with any other evidence that followed from that discovery. It makes quite a bit of difference. Can’t get your seven months and $8,500 back, though.

  20. avatar Kendahl says:

    I’m skeptical of both devices.

    Even if a gun has been fired recently, the infrared light it emits would have to penetrate the metal trunk lid to be detected. I don’t think you would even see an amorphous blob let along a sharp picture.

    The phone device is trying to do ultrasound through the air at a significant distance. Medical ultrasound requires contact with a gel to conduct the sound waves.

  21. avatar Hannibal says:

    If the officer with the thermal imager had probable (not probably) cause, this is a non-issue but I don’t know why he would use it. Good way to muddle the evidentiary waters.

    If he didn’t, well, I hope his department is fine with him getting a lot of court overtime for this one. Kyllo vs. U.S. (rightly, I believe) disallowed this sort of thing with houses but the standard of privacy is historically less in cars.

  22. avatar Casey says:

    “Combining IoT and AI” is a nonsense phrase that means “We do not understand the concepts of IoT nor AI, but we’re betting you don’t either and will still give us money.”

  23. All U.S. citizens are innocent till proven guilty in a court of law…My guess, The P/O’s illegally searched the suspects vehicle…Then went to a local Democrat Politcian and borrowed a Kenmoore Washer/Dryer to add some SJW ‘Spin-Doctoring…’

    1. avatar Stereodude says:

      Hey everyone, we found the naive commenter!

      Best case you are presumed guilty until proven not guilty. No one sitting on the jury goes into court at the start of a trial with the mindset of, “The defendant is innocent. Lets see if the prosecution can change my mind and show he’s guilty.” Law enforcement is automatically given the benefit of the doubt. Pretty much everyone assumes they don’t prosecute innocent people so the very fact that the defendant is sitting there makes him presumed guilty.

      Court is not about facts. It’s theater for 12 jurors. Generally speaking whoever puts on the best show wins.

  24. avatar Terclinger says:

    in that SWORD vaporware video, the college kid they “scanned” and found the firearm was carrying his pistol facing backwards at 3 o’clock… crazy cross draw…

  25. avatar TWP says:

    “heat signature of the recently-fired weapon”

    As opposed to “something above ambient temperature”? With layers of air and metal between the source and the detector the chances of discerning a meaningful shape I’m estimating as practically nil.

    Stinks to me. Plausible cause does not equal probable cause.

  26. avatar NVKLSNKV says:

    I’m surprised to see TTAG spreading misinformation like this. Dan, you should probably remove this story or edit the headline.

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