People v. Gilbert

Decision Date28 September 1982
Docket NumberDocket No. 64147,No. 6,6
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Daniel C. GILBERT, Defendant-Appellant. Calendar414 Mich. 191, 324 N.W.2d 834
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

L. Brooks Patterson, Pros. Atty., Oakland County, Robert C. Williams, Chief Appellate Counsel by Michael J. Modelski, Asst. Pros. Atty., Pontiac, for plaintiff-appellee.

Bacalis & Associates, P.C. by Jesse R. Bacalis, John D. Honeyman, Detroit, for defendant-appellant; Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth by Robert L. Pettit, Washington, D.C., of counsel.

Kantner & Smith by Martin Smith, Ann Arbor, for amicus curiae Electrolert Inc.

LEVIN, Justice.

Daniel C. Gilbert is charged, on evidence that there was a radar detector in a motor vehicle he was driving, 1 with equipping a motor vehicle with a radio receiving set that will receive signals on frequencies assigned for police purposes. 2

The municipal judge granted Gilbert's motion to dismiss on the ground that the statute does not apply to radar detectors. The circuit judge reversed and remanded for trial. The Court of Appeals also rejected Gilbert's challenges but ruled that its decision would be prospective only and, reversing the circuit court, directed that the charges be dismissed, 88 Mich.App. 764, 279 N.W.2d 546, 93 Mich.App. 321, 287 N.W.2d 220.

The principal issue is whether a radar detector is a "radio receiving set" within the meaning of the statute. 3 We hold that it is not because the statute protects the confidentiality of police communications but not electronic surveillance by the police.

The question whether persons should be barred from installing devices designed to detect electronic surveillance by the police was not addressed by the Legislature when this statute was enacted in 1929.

The asserted desirability of barring motorists from installing radar detectors does not justify a court in placing a construction on the statute which the Legislature could not possibly have contemplated in 1929 when the statute was enacted.

The reading of the statute set forth in the opinion of the Court of Appeals and in the dissenting opinion in this Court would bar the equipping of a motor vehicle with a device designed to detect electronic surveillance of speech within the vehicle as well as of a device to detect electronic surveillance of the speed of the vehicle.

The statute subjects offenders to a conviction record of having committed a high misdemeanor and to incarceration for up to one year. If the Legislature were to proscribe radar detectors, it is likely that the penalties for installation or use of a radar detector would be more commensurate with the penalties for speeding.

It is for the Legislature to decide whether, and the extent to which, the detection of police electronic surveillance should be barred. There may be some concern that the Legislature may not act quickly or at all, but that surely is not a proper basis for this Court acting in the name of the Legislature.


It appears, as set forth in the dissenting opinion, that radio waves carry signals that can today be perceived visually or audibly. The term "radio receiving set", thus, may now be construed to include a television set or a radar detector. But at the time the statute was enacted, in 1929, neither television sets nor radar detectors had been developed. At the time, the only radio receiving set in use was what is today called a radio.


The members of the Legislature had in mind a particular device, the radio, and not television sets or radar detectors which had not been developed in 1929. The advance in the art, 10 to 15 years after the statute was enacted, does not enlarge the meaning of the term "radio receiving set" from the only meaning known to those who used that term when the statute was enacted.

The dissenting opinion concludes that a "narrow" construction of the statute "encompasses the term radar detector within the plain meaning of the statute." 4 (Emphasis added.) This conclusion rests on post-enactment usage: "radar is a convenient acronym for 'RAdio Detection And Ranging' " 5 and "Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1966) Edition, p. 1871, has defined 'radar' as 'a radio device or system for locating an object by means of emitting radio signals' ". (Emphasis supplied.)

Words do not stand outside their history. They draw their meaning from it. The plain-meaning rule of statutory construction assumes that the words of a statute have the same meaning to those who authored it and to those who read it. This assumption might be accurate if linguistic usage remained static. But usage and meanings may change considerably over time, and the semantic identity between author and reader which the plain-meaning rule presupposes may be severed. A succeeding generation of readers may read meanings into a text which were never intended. Words chosen to deal with a specific problem may, as a result, be given meanings that could extend their field of application well beyond anything the author could have envisioned. 6

A court's responsibility when it construes a statute is to implement the purpose and intent of those who enact it. 7 A failure to consider whether the Legislature understood the meaning of a term quite differently when a statute was enacted than it is understood today would allow a statute to be construed in a manner which extends its intended scope. The proper inquiry is not whether the term "radio receiving set" would be understood by a modern reader to include the use of radar but whether at the time the phrase was used the Legislature provided for this technological development.


Radar had yet to be developed when the Legislature enacted this statute in 1929. During the 1930's, under the veil of military secrecy, scientists were still seeking to develop a method for producing radio signals with short wavelength characteristics so that the speed and position of an object travelling through space could be monitored. Although the term "radar" was not coined until 1942, by 1936 the United States military had successfully developed a radar system for target tracking and navigation. It was only after the Second World War that highway police began to use a simple radar transmitter for the detection of speeding vehicles, the shifting reflections from moving vehicles enabling instant and direct measurement of their velocity. Thus, at the time this statute was enacted, the Legislature was not in a position to realize that radar would come to be used as a means for detecting speeding motorists, much less to assess the defensive measures motorists would take to avoid surveillance.

The dissenting opinion asserts that it is but an "insignificant difference" 8 that radar, in contrast with conventional radio, does not transform received signals into voice communications. While this difference may seem unimportant today, it helps to identify the actual problem which the Legislature meant to address when it enacted this statute.

Through the enactment of this statute, the Legislature sought to deter criminals from eavesdropping on two-way police communications. It was feared that if criminals were able to pick up police dispatches to the scene of a crime, their escape would be facilitated. The concern which gave rise to statutes designed to assure the confidentiality of two-way police transmissions has been described by a person conversant with the subject of police communications systems in the following manner:

"Secrecy is fundamental to the success of both military and police operations. Premature publication of details connected with criminal investigation has thwarted the police on occasions without number. When radio was adopted as an arm of police communication, secrecy received much serious consideration, since, in radio transmission, information is radiated to all points of the compass. Any person possessing a suitable receiver might listen to police broadcasts. The probability that criminals would exploit this opportunity to their advantage was obvious.

"In the early use of radio in law enforcement, many police officials viewed the problem with anxiety. At the 1924 convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a committee was appointed to prepare a suitable code for police use, in order that information might be transmitted without the possibility of its being intercepted and used for criminal purposes.

"The story has been frequently told of an apartment-house burglar in Chicago who had taken the precaution to tune the receiver in the apartment to the police broadcast frequency. Neighbors reported to the police their suspicions of a burglary and the radio dispatcher immediately went on the air with an alarm broadcast, 'Burglar operating in apartment on sixth floor at 5346 Main Street,' and ordered squad cars to the scene. Hearing the message, the burglar is said to have written a note of thanks for the warning, pinned it on the radio and made a leisurely departure before the officers arrived." V.A. Leonard, Police Communications Systems, p. 104 (1938).

The behavior this statute sought to outlaw was the breach of confidential two-way police radio communications occurring after a crime against persons or property had been detected. The statute was not meant to protect police attempts to detect crimes by means of a radio technology which had yet to be developed. 9

Although the preceding history shows that this statute was designed to address a problem of law enforcement superficially similar to the one involved in the instant case, the methods of crime detection and the technology of radio were distinct when the Legislature proscribed the use of "radio receiving sets" capable of receiving police voice transmission. In the years that followed, radio technology became a method for detecting wrongdoing. This advance created opportunities and problems...

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