WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that thermal imaging to record the amount of heat emanating from a house, a police practice to help detect illegal drugs, represents a search covered by constitutional privacy protections.

The court's 5-4 ruling was a setback for the U.S. Justice Department, which argued the use of a thermal imager by law enforcement officers to detect the heat emitted from a house was not a search and was not covered by the privacy protections.

Justice Antonin Scalia said for the court majority that when the government uses a device not in general public use to explore the details of a private home that would previously been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a search and requires a warrant.

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