Are Police Scanner Apps Illegal?

Do you ever wonder what the police talk about on their radios while enforcing traffic safety and car safety? If you have an iPhone or an Android, you can listen in from your car. Here is how police scanner apps work, and where they are illegal.

Do police scanner apps actually work?

Policeman holding a phone he uses for his job up to the camera.
Policeman holding an iPhone | Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images

There are many police scanner apps available for your phone. They do not turn your cellphone into a radio. They do access internet streams uploaded by owners of home police scanners. So yes, you can listen to real live police radio chatter on your phone while in your car.

It may surprise you to know that it’s perfectly legal to listen to police radio channels. Most of the time, police departments, fire department, and ambulance crews use public radio channels to communicate. In all 50 states, you can install a police scanner in your home and listen in. But there are some states that outlaw listening from your car.

Early in the internet age, many home police scanner owners began to stream audio from their radios. Anyone interested could listen to these from their own computers, just like they would listen to a home scanner.

Now, several software developers have released police scanner apps for your iPhone and Android. With these apps, you can select a police scanner stream and listen in. These streams are not limited by your location, so you could listen to any streamed police channel from Miami to Mendocino. But listening may not always be legal.

Are police scanner apps legal?

This is a photo of a police officer's utility belt, complete with a radio.
Police officer’s radio | Robert Alexander/Getty Images

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According to NBC News, the laws surrounding police scanner apps for your phone are murky. This is because they hinge on how you are using the app. Overall, an individual can listen in from their home if they aren’t using police chatter to help them commit a crime.

Firstly, it is illegal to “obstruct justice” in any way. So if a person is using a police scanner to prevent police from doing their job—say evading police officers—then they are breaking the law.

Secondly, at least five states allow home police scanners but prohibit unlicensed “mobile” police scanners. These states are Indiana, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, and New York. Because these are older laws, it is not clear whether you can use a police scanner on your mobile phone, while in your own home, in these states. But listening while driving your car through these states is likely illegal.

Finally, at least five additional states have a law prohibiting the use of a mobile police scanner to help an individual commit another crime. These states are California, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Can you download a police scanner app?

Policewoman holding up an iphone and smiling.
Policewoman holding an iPhone | Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images

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Maybe you are curious how police communicate or about what’s going on in a distant city. It is legal to listen to police radio on a home device—such as your computer—if you are not using this scanner to help commit a crime or obstruct justice.

But do you plan to download a police scanner app to a mobile device? Are you hoping to listen to the police while driving your car? It may be worth researching the latest local laws.

As of this writing, you can access police scanner apps for your mobile phone (either iPhone or Android) in all 50 states. We’ll see if this changes.

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