Police Can Be Sued for Letting Media See Raids
By Joan Biskupic and Howard Kurtz
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that police can be sued for letting reporters and photographers accompany them on raids of private homes, a decision that could curtail a widespread practice of media "ride-alongs" with law enforcement.
The justices said that police violate the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures when they allow reporters and camera crews to enter homes to observe law enforcement first-hand and, in some cases, obtain the dramatic footage that is now a staple of television news and cop shows.
"[I]t is a violation of the Fourth Amendment for police to bring members of the media or other third parties into a home during the execution of a warrant when [their] presence . . . was not in aid of the execution of the warrant," Rehnquist wrote regarding the case, which began when a Washington Post reporter and photographer burst into a Rockville couple's home with police early one morning in 1992.
The photographer took pictures of resident Charles Wilson, who was dressed only in undershorts, as an officer wrestled him to the ground and put a gun to his head, and his wife, Geraldine, who was wearing a negligee. The deputies from the Montgomery County sheriff's department and the U.S. marshal's office had been looking for the Wilsons' son, Dominic, who was a fugitive and who, it turned out, was not in the home. The Wilsons sued the officers under federal civil rights law.
Under the ruling, police could be forced to pay damages if they bring members of the media into private homes. But the court said that in the Maryland dispute and in a companion case from Montana involving CNN, police would be protected from liability because the law was not yet clear when the incidents took place.
Rehnquist noted that government officials, including law enforcement officers, can have "qualified immunity" from liability for civil damages if they could not have known at the time that what they were doing was wrong. Rehnquist said that these cases met that standard, with only Justice John Paul Stevens dissenting from that part of the ruling.
Although the legal question in yesterday's case regarded only the officers' liability for inviting the media along and not the media's responsibility for taking part in the action, the case had drawn widespread press attention. Ride-alongs involve a common collaboration: the government wants publicity for its law enforcement efforts, the press wants a first-hand view of an arrest.
Lee Levine, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief for 24 media organizations, said "police and law enforcement will be very reluctant to invite the media to come along, whether we're talking about a home or an open area or riding along in a police car . . . and that will have an unfortunate effect on news reporting."
John Langley, executive producer of the Fox program "COPS," said that "as a so-called ride-along program, we are unaffected by the decision because we obtain releases from everyone involved in our program. Moreover, we do not, under any circumstances, violate rights of privacy." But the releases could become a moot point if police decide to bar cameras from their raids.
"These shows are in that gray area between entertainment and journalism," said Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "They're not actually providing news. It's more voyeurism with a tinge of moralism. . . . what it's like to ride with a cop, to be a cop."
At The Post, which did not publish the pictures taken during the Rockville raid, Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman said news-gathering practices would be largely unaffected. "When we ride along with the police, in most of those circumstances we're observing the police in public places," he said. But the paper understands "that the individual house is a threshold that you don't cross" on police raids.
A CNN spokesman said the network is studying the ruling.
Attorney Richard K. Willard, who represents the Wilsons, said he was pleased with the ruling because "it protects people from the indignity of having their homes invaded by reporters." Although the Wilsons' civil rights claim has been shut down, Willard noted that a separate federal tort claim was still pending.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the two cases in part because federal courts had produced contradictory rulings.
In the Maryland case, Wilson v. Layne, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police did not violate the Wilsons' rights because past court cases did not plainly forbid police from taking reporters with them to witness an arrest.
But in the Montana case, Hanlon v. Berger, which arose after federal agents brought along a CNN crew while searching the ranch of a man suspected of poisoning protected eagles, the 9th Circuit said "no reasonable officer would have thought it permissible" to allow the press to be present.
In yesterday's cases, the Supreme Court made clear that the Fourth Amendment does not permit police to bring along the press or any third party who is not part of the law enforcement mission. Rehnquist emphasized the sanctity of the home and the residential privacy at the core of the Fourth Amendment, dismissing the argument that ride-alongs serve a public relations function and help ensure against police misconduct.
Montgomery County Sheriff Ray Kight, who was named in the Wilsons' suit along with three of his deputies, said he was relieved by the court's finding that Montgomery sheriff's officials have immunity from the lawsuit.
"It gives law enforcement throughout the country new guidelines where we didn't have any before," he said. But he added, "I think it will definitely have a chilling effect on press coverage" of law enforcement.
Staff writers Sharon Waxman and Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company