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In USA, is it legal to hear police or ATC (air traffic control) frequency?

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  • $\begingroup$ Last I checked, a lot of police departments have switched to digital radios, which are either difficult to monitor with general purpose scanners, or are encrypted and thus effectively not possible to monitor. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Mar 23 '14 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ While digital systems are less susceptible to jamming or disruption, they can still be (reasonably easily) monitored with modern scanners. I do not believe that it is illegal to listen to radio traffic (which would be impossible to enforce) - some states (NY for example) forbid the use of mobile (car) scanners. Fortunately for hams, Federal law grants us a license to use mobile radios and equipment, which trumps the state law. Not a complete answer, but possible suggestion to edit the question accordingly. $\endgroup$ – Ron J. KD2EQS Mar 24 '14 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ This question appears to be off-topic because it is not about Amateur Radio. $\endgroup$ – user Mar 25 '14 at 9:58
  • $\begingroup$ But it is about the use of radio technology. I wouldn't have voted to close this one. Also I don't understand how it could have been closed by only one person. I thought it always required a vote. In any case, there are good answers here already so the point is moot. $\endgroup$ – SDsolar Sep 14 '17 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ It is always legal in the US, as opposed to other countries where it may not. The answer and comment below are good enough to make this a reference question. $\endgroup$ – SDsolar Sep 14 '17 at 3:52
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In the US the answer is generally yes, you can listen to such transmissions, but local and federal laws may have some restrictions on what you can do with information gained from listening activities, and in some very specific circumstances you aren't allowed to listen at all.

Most of the time the restrictions only come into play when you divulge information you gained from listening to certain transmissions.

But there are also restrictions that disallow intercepting transmissions for one's personal gain, such as operating a taxi service, listening to the competitor's dispatcher, and acting on that information to gain a business advantage. Alternately, there are restrictions on trying to obtain for-pay services without paying for them in certain circumstances, such as pay-tv, hold music services, and so forth even if they do not encrypt their transmissions.

While it's generally believed that listening to cellphone conversations is illegal, that is not generally true, and is not federally mandated. However, if you sell scanners you must restrict them from receiving in the cellular bands, for instance. Also there are specific harsh penalties for divulging information you may learn from cellular transmissions. This makes it difficult to listen to them, or profit from listening, but doesn't necessarily make it directly illegal to listen to them. There are additional restrictions on decoding digital transmissions, which may make it illegal with today's systems.

Local laws often make it illegal to listen to law enforcement transmissions in connection with a crime.

However, Supreme Court rulings, FCC rules, federal laws, and local laws are open to some interpretation. The legality of listening to a particular transmission will depend on more information than you've provided.

http://www.fcc.gov/guides/interception-and-divulgence-radio-communications

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If you are a licensed amateur radio operator, using your Part 97 gear, the answer is an unequivocal "yes".

http://www.arrl.org/files/file/pr91-36.pdf

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    $\begingroup$ Briefly reading that document, it seems only to say that merely owning a receiver capable of monitoring police or ATC communications is not illegal for licensed amateurs. It doesn't say anything about the legality of actually using that equipment to monitor these communications. Similar: it's legal to own a firearm, but that doesn't unequivocally legal to discharge it. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Mar 23 '14 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ I like the way you put that, @Phil, as ususal. In other countries it may not be legal to even receive TV without a license, and in the US no license of any kind is required to listen to any frequency. Of course, there are laws that apply to scanner manufacturers that force them to make their devices avoid cellphone frequencies, but that doesn't make it illegal for us to listen there. $\endgroup$ – SDsolar Sep 14 '17 at 3:51

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