FCC authority to conduct warrentless searches of Private Property

FCC seal
FCC seal

I was this interesting tidbit on the Radio World website the other day.  The question is, how much authority does the FCC have to conduct a search of a private residence?   The Electronic Frontier Foundation wanted to know therefore they sent a FOIA request to the FCC seeking documents supporting this claimed authority.

The documents received seem to be redacted and some are mostly blank, such as the training module on how to obtain permission to enter private property is supposed to take 6 hours to complete, but consists of 3 paragraphs and 2 questions.  Hopefully, that is redacted and does not reflect on the quality of agents the FCC is employing these days.  The upshot seems to be the agent either needs a warrant or permission.

It may be surprising to some citizens, however, the FCC does have the authority to investigate radio signals, whether they are intentionally generated, as in a pirate broadcaster, or unintentionally generated, as in a piece of gear gone bad.

According to federal regulations, an FCC agent may request entry to inspect a private building anytime he/she believes there may be a device emitting radio frequency energy.  This includes anything with an FCC part 15 sticker, which can be computers, TV remote controls, garage door openers, WiFi network routers, etc.  This basically covers every house in the US as well as most businesses.  Those rules were written when most homes and businesses did not have any RF generating devices and there was little to indicate that they ever would.

The consequence of failure to allow an FCC field agent into a residence or business appears to be the issuance of a citation in the form of a threatening letter.  Continued intransigence would be met with a NAL (Notice of Apparent Liability) followed by a forfeiture notice also known as a fine.  The typical FCC fine these days seems to be $10,000.00.  If it is a repeated and willful violation, the equipment can be ceased and the perpetrator arrested.

In instances where the safety of life is in question, then every step necessary to disable the offending device needs to be taken.  Things like transmitters spurring into aircraft frequencies or TV antenna amplifiers running wide open, also interfering with aircraft frequencies come to mind.

One of the examples given details a field agent trying to track down a noisy cable TV amplifier.  From the FCC field agent’s perspective, the homeowner appears to be a royal pain in the ass.  In this day and age when everything has a computer and most of them generate RF, tracking down interference can be a painstaking process, especially where housing is dense.  Uncooperative homeowners, especially dumb ones, who have no idea what they have plugged in only make things worse.

Still, there is the issue of fourth amendment rights, which, if the above law was misinterpreted, misused, or applied with the wrong standard would likely be trampled.  In these days of extra-constitutional activity, giving Los Federales entry into one’s house might invite unwanted scrutiny by other agencies.  As far as changing the rules, with the current group of scoundrels and rouges in the legislative branch, one might end up with something ten times worse than before.

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2 thoughts on “FCC authority to conduct warrentless searches of Private Property”

  1. In the past, the FCC was a “paper tiger” with no teeth. I recall a situation that went on for years that never got any attention from the FCC. As a radio nut growing up at 10 years old, I came upon a local pirate re-broadcasting Milwaukee Police on 1537 kHz. using a carrier-operated relay to key his transmitter. At that time, Milwaukee Police transmitted on 2450 kHz. (AM) with a Western Electric 1 kW grid-modulated linear. Whenever the 2450 kHz. transmitter came on the air, 1537 kHz. would come on the air and re-broadcast police calls. WTKM about 35 miles away on 1540 kHz. with 500 watts wasn’t really bothered, but nevertheless was being interfered with each time the pirate carrier came on the air. I tried to track down the signal on my bicycle with a transistor radio, but had really no way of a pinpoint back then with the intermittent transmissions. It was definitely on the south side of Milwaukee, and had to be a residence. The transmission quality was pretty good. Apparently, whoever this was thought he was providing a service to the community! These broadcasts went on for years. When Milwaukee switched to 159.15 MHz. with a new Motorola FM system in 1960, the Western Electric went dead but sat around for about 6 years when Air Force MARS got it donated for a 3 MHz. single-sideband project. Since I was an Air Force MARS member, I mentioned the scenario just described 10 years earlier. The story went like this; the FCC Chicago office was called, and an engineer came up and tracked down the pirate. A knock on the door and nobody home. The FCC engineer said that nothing could be done since the alleged broadcaster didn’t have a license! He further explained that the FCC was powerless in this case and went back to Chicago. The next step was a visit by Milwaukee Police Communications Bureau personnel who under ordnance are sworn officers. Accordingly, they pleaded with the individual to turn off the transmitter, and he agreed to do so. I was told that the transmitter was estimated to be running about 50 watts. So, things have changed big time in 50 years. I remember reading Shakespeare in Henry VI, as a character uttered “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”. Today, there is certainly no shortage of these licensees to thievery, and a return to Feudalism is becoming apparent.

  2. You know, its funny sort of, that two days after I write this blog post, the FCC shows up at the stations I contract for. I will say one thing, I have never met an FCC inspector that was not polite and professional.

    So, we got to talking and it seems they are quite busy around NYC busting pirates these days. Well, thats the way it goes…

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