High Court to Review Reporter Ride-Alongs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page A2
Charles and Geraldine Wilson were still in bed when they heard the pounding on their front door that April morning. Their 9-year-old granddaughter was in their Rockville home, waiting for the school bus. They heard the child go to the door but couldn't tell what was happening.
When Charles Wilson reached the living room, wearing only undershorts, he was confronted by three plainclothes officers with guns drawn. At their side were a man and woman who turned out to be a Washington Post reporter and photographer. After police forced Wilson to the floor, his wife appeared dressed only in a negligee.
The photographer sprang to action, taking pictures of the besieged couple, including one of Wilson with an officer's knee on his back and a gun to his head.
That moment seven years ago--memorialized now in a court case of national importance--was the product of a collaboration between police and reporters. The government wanted the publicity in its effort to track down fugitives and the news media wanted a firsthand view of a dramatic arrest. And now the Supreme Court is taking a look at the consequences for privacy rights.
The court has agreed to review two cases involving reporter ride-alongs that were brought by the Wilsons and a Montana rancher. The justices will hear arguments on Wednesday.
The cases underscore conflicting public values: an individual's right to privacy, the police's interest in trying to maximize its effectiveness and the press's historic watchdog role. And in a media age that often features panicky suspects caught by both law enforcement and the camera's lens, the cases offer a contemporary twist on the two-century-old Fourth Amendment protections.
The legal question before the high court regards only the officers' liability in carrying out the raids, not the media's responsibility in being part of the action. But the controversy over the propriety of the press-police collaboration permeates the cases.
In defending the arrangement, media lawyers contend that when reporters ride with police they can monitor abuses of government power at the source. "By observing and recording first-hand the activities of government officials charged with enforcing the law," says an amicus curiae brief filed by two dozen organizations, including the three big networks, The Washington Post and the New York Times, ". . . the news media afford the public a unique window through which to observe the conduct of those officials . . . and the social conditions they confront."
They say that ride-alongs have fostered public insight into police raids on "crack houses," fire marshal inspections of overcrowded sweatshops and health department examinations of roach-infested restaurant kitchens.
But criminal defense lawyers, who have also submitted a "friend of the court" brief, counter that the presence of cameras and reporters can incite bravado and unnecessary dangerous behavior by officers. They contend as well that journalists cannot pursue real corruption through pacts made with police.
In the Maryland case, Wilson was outraged at the intrusion. After deputies from the Montgomery County sheriff's department and U.S. marshal's office forced him to the ground, they cursed him and began asking about Dominic Jerome Wilson, a wanted fugitive and the Wilsons' adult son. The hunt was part of a 1992 nationwide effort called "Operation Gunsmoke" designed to catch prison escapees and parole violators. Dominic Wilson, 27, had allegedly violated probation. The Post, which was working on a story about Operation Gunsmoke, never published the photos.
After the agents realized they had the wrong man and that Dominic wasn't there, they left. But that would not be the end of it. The Wilsons sued the team's supervisor, Harry Layne, and other officers for inviting the media along, claiming the action violated their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"It compounded the indignity," their lawyer, Richard K. Willard, said recently. "The Wilsons were very embarrassed to be photographed that way. And then they found out the pictures were in the hands of the media. That made it so much more intrusive."
But Richard A. Cordray, who represents the federal officers who raided the Wilsons' home and others involved in a similar Montana case, counters that allowing reporters to ride along is commonplace and that such publicity "enhances public confidence and helps deter crime." In both cases before the court, the agents had obtained valid arrest and search warrants.
The Montana case arose when federal agents brought along a Cable News Network crew on a search of a ranch owned by Paul Berger, who was suspected of poisoning protected eagles.
Agents wearing hidden microphones and trailed by camera men spent a day searching Berger's property in March 1993. Berger was eventually convicted of a misdemeanor count of misusing a pesticide, by allegedly putting it on a sheep carcass to poison predators. He was acquitted of three felony counts of killing at least one eagle. CNN broadcast some of the video footage in a story about ranchers killing animals.
Berger, who was 71 at the time of the search, and his wife, Erma, 81, sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents for violating their civil rights by allowing the media to film the search and expose their conversations and possessions.
The core questions for the justices in Wilson v. Layne and Hanlon v. Berger are whether law enforcement officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they brought reporters along and whether they should be held personally liable under federal civil rights law. The Supreme Court has said government officials can have "qualified immunity" from liability for civil damages if they could not have known at the time of the incidents that what they were doing was wrong.
Federal appeals courts reviewed the legal landscape and came up with different answers in the Maryland and Montana disputes.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said "no reasonable officer could have thought it permissible" to allow the press to be present at the Berger ranch search. Reviewing past cases nationwide, it said the practice violated the Fourth Amendment "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures . . . ."
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court by a 6 to 5 vote ruled that the officers did not violate the Wilsons' rights because past court cases did not plainly forbid police from taking reporters with them to witness an arrest in someone's home. In the majority's decision last year, Judge William W. Wilkins Jr. wrote that federal and state officers could have reasonably believed that the presence of a reporter and photographer served a legitimate law enforcement interest.
Dissenting Judge Francis D. Murnaghan countered that "The police brought the team along in the hope of getting some good press; that is all." He said it was "patently unreasonable" for a police officer to allow a man in his underwear, gun at his head, to be photographed.
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