Superman's X-ray vision: needs a search warrant?

As a citizen of Metropolis I’m disgusted by the actions of one “Superman” who rushes about town invading the privacy of every citizen. He claims to have something which he calls “X-ray vision” which permits him to see through walls, through clothing, and through every substance except for lead.

Obviously, the damage this man can cause with his uninhibited espionage is beyond calculation. State secrets are not safe; upcoming legal corporate transactions may be exposed prematurely; and citizens everywhere must live in terror of the man who can travel faster than a speeding bullet and see everything, everywhere. Those of us with legitimate business interests in Metropolis are beholden to the lead-sheeting industry for maintaining our right to privacy in our own homes.

In addition, he claims something called “super-hearing” which enables him to detect and follow multiple discrete conversations at great distances, through walls; is no secret in Metropolis safe from this man?

Is this “Superman” sanctioned by the police? If so, why are our duly appointed state authorities doing nothing about this gross violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unlawful search and seizure?

And if he is not appointed or authorized by our leaders, why is a private citizen given a free pass to conduct what would be, for any other citizen, gross violations of voyeurism, phone-tapping, examination of closed envelopes sent through the public mail, and more crimes than can be counted?


L. Luthor, concerned citizen and legitimate businessman

(In case anybody objects that this is a joke, I am legitimately curious about how a superhero’s superhuman senses would be treated by a court.

Specifically, Superman has enhanced senses beyond a human norm; presumably, he must concentrate to use his see-through vision, but cannot turn his super-hearing off.

Since his super-hearing is a natural and uninterrupted part of his normal spectrum of senses, would he need a search warrant to overhear a crime in progress — say, criminals plotting in a private residence? As I understand it, a warrant is needed to use sense-enhancing devices like a thermal scanner to check a house for radiant heat, but a search dog needs none.

This might not be a debate, per se, but it might evolve into one, so I put it here.)

Interesting. But since Superman is so wholesome and good and would never do anything wrong or inappropriate, let’s focus on someone else that came from his planet with the same super powers. And let’s say he’s a bad guy. Well, this beiing the good old US of A, we can’t just lock him up without him having commited a crime. So we wait. Sure enough he eventually catch him and convict him o0f some crime and sentence him to five years in a Kryptonite cell.

Now the five years are up. Do we let him out, as he has served his time? Do we pass some new law to keep him locked up forever? (Gitmo joke goes here.) Do we perform an operation on him to deprive him of his super powers? How about if we give him a choice: stay locked up or have us perform the operation? And how if he says “I’ll take the operation”? Would any doctor perform such an operation?

Sorry. I guess I have no answers, just a lot more questions. Basically your hypothetical poses some questions that we are not prepared to deal with. Interesting, though.

here’s one answer

in this case, superman (well, the police actually)used x-ray vision,(well, infra-red actually) to look through walls. They detected heat lamps, which they considered a probable cause to to ask a local court for a search warrant. They then entered the house and arrested the owner for marijuana possession. Local courts upheld it, but the Supreme court rejected the arrest, as a violation of privacy rights. The ruling stated that certain technological advances are okay but others are not.For example, airplanes may be used to look over a wall into private areas, but eavesdropping devices may not be used to listen through that same wall.

Supes is not a state actor, but a private citizen. So, the search warrant stuff does not apply.

I suppose the same rules would apply to Supes that apply to any private investigator regarding admissibility of evidence garnered by questionable surveillance methods. I don’t know what those rules are.

It’s not true that the police need a warrant to do an IR scan of your house.

First, it is clear that police can walk by your house and look at it. They can stand on the sidewalk and listen. If they see or hear evidence of a crime in plain view they don’t need a warrant to enter your house.

And courts have held that IR emissions from your house are the same as visible emissions. Just as anyone can walk by and look at your house, anyone can walk by with an IR scanner or nightvision goggles.

Another issue is the Superman is not a police officer, he is a private citizen. So use of his powers wouldn’t just have to violate police procedures, they would have to be a crime. And to convict Superman of a crime you’d have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the crime. Even if we make the use of x-ray vision or superhearing a crime, and even if Superman is regularly using his x-ray vision and superhearing you’d have to somehow prove that he used it on a particular place and time. The mere fact that Superman CAN use x-ray vision doesn’t mean he IS using x-ray vision, you’d have to prove he used it. All Superman has to do is invoke his 5th amendment rights. How could you show he used his vision illegally?

Myself, I’m more worried about FAA violations.

Are you sure about that? I thought there was a court case the covered this. The courts ruled that the police do need a warrent.

can superman turn off the xray vision off at will? (same with the super hearing) or is it a curse of his that makes it so he hears every little thing that goes on? if he can turn these things off at will, then that would prove that he was eavesdropping. isn’t some variation of this an invasion of privacy? obviously, if he busted in someone’s house after hearing something, not being an agent of the state, and kicked ass, couldn’t/shouldn’t he be sued for damages?
isn 't that akin to talking about murdering or killing someone and, not having done it yet (or ever meaning to), having a passer by hear it and kick your ass over it. even IF superman’s hearing were admitted in court, couldn’t it e construed as just hearsay?


i had wondered this before. does he have an FAA number? does he have to notify people if he goes into the air? is he a UFO? would NORAD take offense to some little bastard blip zipping back and forth from the north pole and back?

Since Superman is not using any sensory-enhancement devices, to him those emissions are in “plain view,” are they not?

To reiterate my comparison, I think Superman would have to be classified as some kind of … I dunno, police dog. As I understand it — and I may be wrong here — you don’t need a warrant to have a police dog sniff at someone’s vehicle. In fact, don’t you use the dog’s reaction as justification to get a warrant?

Yeah, and I know Superman isn’t an official arm of the government and not subject to search warrant laws. I mentioned that in the OP. Either he is a police officer, and needs a warrant; or he is not, and is committing crimes of some kind.

Evidence collected by government officials such as police officers cannot be admitted in court, if it was gathered without a warrant where such is required, or otherwise illegally.

However, private citizens who gather evidence illegally can turn it over to the authorities and it is admissible. (Whether the citizen in question would be prosecuted for his illegal acts would be a separate decision within discretion of the DA’s office.)

Superman is a private citizen, therefore . . .

Maybe it’s time to explicitly state this so people stop coming in and saying, “Well, I haven’t read the thread, including the OP, but Superman is a private citizen…” :smiley:

So what if he (or any superhero with naturally enhanced senses) were a police officer? He’s not using an electronic surveillance device, only his natural perceptions. To re-quote the previous ruling, bolding mine:

It sounds like you were not certain in the OP about whether warrant laws would apply.

I don’t know the Superman comics well enough to know whether Big Blue is an officially sanctioned and/or sworn officer of the law in some capacity. (And again, not necessarily Superman particularly, but any superhero along the same lines with naturally enhanced senses. Batman is often summoned by Commissioner Gordon, it’s true, but Bats would have to use a device to do what Superman does naturally.*)

I also don’t know whether it’s legal for a government agency to have a go-to guy like Supes to do all of their illegal searching and seizuring; it seems as if that would violate the spirit of the Fourth Amendment if the government could simply hire people to do what they themselves cannot.

Superman himself, yes: private citizen.

Also, Bats don’t shiv. He balls nasty.

Aside from the thermal imaging case, does anyone know if there have been similar cases regarding the use of ‘shotgun’ microphones, which can listen in at fairly long distances, or laser-based listening devices, which can ‘hear’ by detecting the vibration of glass windows?

You’d be surprised what technology can do now to invade your privacy. The NSA has ‘listening’ devices that can eavesdrop on equipment in your house by measuring the fluctuation of power on your AC lines. There are also snoopers that can read data on your monitor by measuring the RF field from outside your house.

We may even have technology some day that allows us to do things like recover conversations that were ‘recorded’ into things like drying mud or paint while people talked.

Superman ain’t got nothin’ on modern technology. Super-vision doesn’t exactly compare to a KH-11 satellite looking into your backyard from a couple of hundred miles away.

maybe superman had a GPS satellite the entire time and it’d have been too Verne-ian to mention it? he was buddies with bruce wayne…i suppose it’s not beyond reason to assume that superman had access to all the toys the batcave could offer.

Actually I don’t think that’s quite true;otherwise he’d quite swiftly go mad from hearing every sound on the planet. (There was at least one pre-Crisis story, and one in the Byrne run, which made a point of super-hearing being a not unalloyed blessing). Kal can either turn the super-hearing off completely or suppress his awareness of everything except for certain sounds; I suspect he’s always listening for Lois’ cries for help and Jimmy’s signal watch.