Justices Question TV's Use on Raids
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 1999; Page A2
Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical yesterday of police arguments that officers should be free to let television cameras and reporters accompany them into homes during searches and arrests.
"It was an amazing invasion," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, referring to a case in which officers, along with a reporter and photographer, raided a Rockville couple's home early one morning in 1992. The photographer took pictures of the husband in his undershorts and the wife in a sheer nightgown.
"Why do you have to take photographers into someone's house?" asked Justice David H. Souter during oral arguments in the case. "What's the help [to law enforcement] provided here?" He said he doubted there was a legitimate reason beyond public relations, adding that "It sounds like fluff."
The justices will not rule until later this spring on whether the police violate people's privacy rights by bringing members of the news media along on searches or to make arrests. But comments from most of the justices in the high-profile case suggested a majority is poised to decide that the practice violates individuals' rights.
Such decision could mean the end of the routine collaboration between police and reporters, which can bring the police favorable publicity and television crews and newspaper photographers dramatic videotape or photographs.
The justices, however, were clearly wrestling with the second part of the question before them: If law enforcement officials indeed violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, should the officers nonetheless be able to claim "qualified immunity" in a civil rights lawsuit by the homeowners? In the past, the court has said government officials can have such immunity if they could not have known at the time of the incidents that what they were doing was wrong.
Yesterday, despite the justices' distress over the circumstances in the paired cases from Maryland and Montana, they questioned whether case law in the early 1990s would have made clear police could not bring members of the news media along. This is the first time the Supreme Court itself has reviewed law enforcement's responsibility when it takes reporters and cameramen or any third party along.
In the Maryland dispute, deputies from the U.S. marshal's office and the Montgomery County sheriff's department went to the home of Charles and Geraldine Wilson to arrest their son, Dominic, who, it turned out, was not there. 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.
Richard A. Cordray and Lawrence Fletcher-Hill, who represented law enforcement officials yesterday, argued that officers have a legitimate interest in letting the public, through the news media, see how they work and that the practice had not been barred by courts. "The PR itself is very important," Cordray said, asserting that it shows police effectiveness and deters crime.
Richard K. Willard, representing the Wilsons, and Henry H. Rossbacher, for the Montana ranchers, argued that the media presence magnifies the intrusion. Willard said: "Entry into the home is one of the clearest violations of the Fourth Amendment that one could imagine."
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