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Monitoring and the Law

Jorge Rodriguez


Cut the Power and the Coax:

Navigating Florida’s Scanner Law


            If you’re visiting Florida this summer as millions of Americas do each year, bring your sunscreen and your scanner, just leave the power cord and outside antennas at home. Because scanning radios are legal in Florida so long as they are not connected to external power or antennas, even in your car. That’s the opinion of the Office of the Attorney General of the State which in 1974 was asked to interpret the law which has changed very little in almost thirty years.

            The Florida statute which regulates such radios is FS § 843.16 which is listed under the obstruction of justice chapter of the title on crimes. It prohibits the installation of radios in motor vehicles and businesses, which can be used to listen to police or law enforcement officers. What is interesting about the law and its interpretation since 1974 is the fact that the radio must be installed in order to be illegal and installation requires an external power source and antenna.

                So says Richard Prospect, Assistant Attorney General of Florida in his response to Melbourne Police Chief Robert Cotton when he was asked to provide an interpretation of the law. Prospect advises that “… my legal research reveals no specific judicial interpretation relative to the meaning of 'installation' as used in the statute…. I have reviewed many similar constructions of the word and perhaps that which is most applicable to this issue is the one given me by an engineer of seventeen years experience with the Federal Communications Commission. His technical assessment of radio installation would be one which requires the particular unit – whether receiver, transmitter, or transceiver – to be connected to a power source and have need of an external antenna capable of rendering the unit functional” (see Attorney General Opinion 74-369; otherwise cited as OAG 074-369).

            Over the years this has come to mean that the radio must be connected to some external power source and an external antenna, something radios of the time required to work, but which modernday handhelds don’t need.

            What legal weight or value do opinions such as this carry? While they are not controlling, primary decisions of law, they do carry the weight of so-called secondary authority. That is legal authority which can be used to persuade a Court, but is not binding on the Court. The Office of the Attorney General’s web site describes such opinions as “… legal advice [to the requestor of the information] on questions of statutory interpretation and [which] can provide guidance to public bodies as an alternative to costly litigation.”

            However, such opinions are not law. “They are advisory only and are not binding in a court of law. Attorney General Opinions are intended to address only questions of law, not questions of fact, mixed questions of fact and law, or questions of executive, legislative or administrative policy.” Just like the information in this column, which is not legal advice, Attorney General Opinions are not a substitute for the advice and counsel of attorneys.

                In 1989, Attorney General Robert Butterworth of Florida was again asked to interpret the statute at the request of Police Chief Peter Petracco of Boca Raton, Florida. At issue this time was a question about whether the Florida law prohibiting installed scanners in vehicles and businesses applied to radio and television stations. The “to the point” opinion of the Attorney General was that: “The installation [and remember in Florida installation means connected to external power and an external antenna] of a police band radio monitor in a business establishment or motor vehicle, except in emergency or crime watch vehicles or in a place established by federal, state, county or municipal government for governmental purposes, by a person other than a radio or television station [see Attorney General Opinion 60-31 and 89-44; otherwise cited as OAG 60-31 and OAG 89-44] or a holder of a valid amateur radio operator or station license issued by the Federal Communications Commission, violates [the Florida law].

            As in other states, visitors and citizens should consider keeping a copy of these opinions and the Florida statute in their vehicle, along with any other relevant paperwork, such as your FCC license, media credentials, etc. if you have an installed radio. Don’t expect the officer on the street to be aware of these nuances in the Florida law. And don’t expect him or her to readily be able to tell the difference between a family radio service (FRS) two-way and a handheld scanner or other commercial two-way radio.

            Finally, these laws apply to government action by government people. So in these times of heightened awareness and concerns about terrorism, be prepared for different rules at any of the many private tourist attractions in Florida – especially Walt Disney World in Orlando. Years ago, Disney security would tell guests they saw with two-way radios and scanners that the equipment was not allowed in the parks. Whether it was an official company policy or the position of the on-duty security person could never be determined. However, as private property Walt Disney World, Bush Gardens and the many other private tourist venues in Florida have a right to restrict who and what enters their property for the safety of all of their guests.

            The actual Language of the Florida Law can be found at: under the headings Title XLVI, Crimes Ch.775-896, Chapter 843, Obstructing Justice, Section 16.

            The actual opinions of the Attorney General can be found at

 Is that Old Frequency List Illegal?

             This past June, Monitoring Times learned days before passage that a Nevada anti-terrorism law contained a provision concerning scanner monitoring. Assembly Bill AB441 was found to contain a provision which in times of emergency could have allowed the governor to declare certain information including radio frequency lists confidential and possession of such lists illegal.

            Originally, AB441 could have made the publication, sale and possession of emergency response radio frequencies illegal if Nevada’s Governor declared the information confidential because of a terrorist threat. Since such information is widely available, such a restriction was determined to be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Scanner hobbyists and the amateur radio community in Nevada flooded their elected state representatives in the days before passage with calls, letters, faxes and emails complaining about the provision and got the bill changed. (See August Closing Comments - ed.)