Using thermal imaging to prove firearms possession

MIT students were recently honored by the Suffolk County District Attorney for their help in providing expert witness testimony in cases involving illegal gun possession. They were testifying that a discarded handgun would retain body heat for a period of time and that photographing the gun with a thermal camera could prove that the gun had been recently held.

From the Suffolk County District Attorney press release

when the device is trained on a recently-discarded handgun, the body heat retained by the gun’s metal frame shows up as brighter than the area surrounding it. This can be used to corroborate a police officer’s observations that a suspect was carrying and tossed a firearm, and can dispel a claim that a recovered gun had been in place and untouched for an extended period of time.

Late last year, the very first jury trial to use thermal imaging as evidence in a gun possession trial ended in a conviction for Jose E. Rodrigues. In that case, Boston Police observed the suspect clutching his waistband as he walked along Whittemore Street on the evening of Jan. 12, 2009. When they inquired of him, he ran away. Officers gave chase, losing sight of him briefly before spotting him with an arm outstretched as if having thrown something; they finally took him into custody in the side yard of a Glendale Street residence. Along his path of flight, they recovered a 9mm semiautomatic Smith & Wesson handgun.

Interesting!

[ Many thanks to Betty for emailing me the link. ]



Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


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  • SpudGun

    Used as a piece of corroborative evidence, it does have it’s place, but shouldn’t be the sole evidence for conviction, after all, if a cop pulled a gun from his pocket and planted the weapon, it would still ‘glow’ with body heat.

    I’m assuming in the case of Mr. Rodrigues, there was more compelling evidence to convict him rather then a thermal image and the eye witness testimony of a cop saying ‘I think I saw him throwing a gun’.

  • Good argument for carrying a polymer semi-auto.

    Or carry your gun in a bag of ice.

  • gunslinger

    I wouldn’t go for the farm just yet. Granted it can be a tool, but we must be careful how it’s used. Did MIT study how long the heat would be retained? do they have statistics of a length of hold vs rate of thermal decay? and what about if it was fired? and how was the gun held? lots of questions. need great answers.

  • kcoz

    Exactly Spudgun, The camera can’t tell you who was holding it. Wouldn’t lifting fingerprints make more sense.

  • Todd

    That image looks like a Beretta 950BS Jetfire.

  • TZL

    How would that work with polymer frame guns?

    • TZL, I wondered about that. I suppose it would be less effective … although how much less effective I don;t know

  • Matt Litman

    That sounds more like a prosecutor using a bunch of b.s. wrapped up in official sounding scientific language to convince a gullible jury to convict.

    The only thing a thermal image will show is the relative temperatures of an object and its surroundings. It does not show what caused the temperature differential. One could make any number of hypotheses as to why a firearm would be warmer than its surroundings.

    More importantly, it is sad that someone would be charged with a crime for possessing a firearm.

  • AK

    How do they know it was his?
    (without fingerprinting the weapon)

    I mean this is Boston..most “blue” states prohibit the *alleged* “free citizens” the right to protect themselves.

  • Clodboy

    “That sounds more like a prosecutor using a bunch of b.s. wrapped up in official sounding scientific language to convince a gullible jury to convict.

    The only thing a thermal image will show is the relative temperatures of an object and its surroundings. It does not show what caused the temperature differential. One could make any number of hypotheses as to why a firearm would be warmer than its surroundings.”

    And those would be which?

    But yes, overreliance on forensic evidence has become a problem for courts in recent years – this is known as the CSI effect, where juries (influenced by forensics-centered crime dramas like “Bones” or the three CSI’s) believe that forensic evidence alone should be the deciding factor in convicting somebody of a crime.

    “More importantly, it is sad that someone would be charged with a crime for possessing a firearm.”

    If he had a recent criminal record and acquired the gun illegally and was planning to use it in some form of criminal activity (which I’m having a sneaking suspicion he was, what with him carrying the damn thing tucked away in his pants) I see no problem with him being charged with a crime.

  • Clodboy

    And yes, if left lying in the morning sun, a dark metal gun may take on a higher temperature than, say, the bright stone sidewalk it was lying around on.

    However, with this case happening in Boston in the middle of January, that explanation seems pretty unlikely to account for a difference as significant as that between body temperature and a cold sidewalk.