Court hears arguments in media “ride-along” cases
U.S. SUPREME COURT–State and federal law enforcement agencies in late March asserted before U.S. Supreme Court justices — who repeatedly voiced concerns about personal privacy and media coverage – – that allowing journalists to accompany them in the execution of search warrants does not violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in November to review conflicting opinions from federal appellate courts on the issue of whether media “ride alongs” transform otherwise legal searches into violations of the Fourth Amendment. A decision is expected in June or July.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor questioned whether the broad public interest of media access ever could overcome the “weighty” interest of privacy invoked when outsiders enter an individual’s home.
Richard Cordray, who argued before the Court on behalf of the federal law enforcement agencies involved in the cases, asserted that the media’s presence helps to ensure that officers do not commit civil rights violations and are not the subject of violence themselves during searches.
Justice Antonin Scalia, however, was skeptical of the value of media coverage of the execution of warrants, questioning whether such coverage served any purpose other than public relations for law enforcement agencies. Scalia suggested that the media can serve no “watchdog” function in the execution of warrants because officers will not commit civil rights violations when they know reporters are present.
Justice David Souter likewise questioned why the media needed to be present for the execution of warrants, and said the public utility of media presence sounded “like fluff.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) held in November 1997 that a CNN camera crew’s presence rendered a U.S. Fish & Wildlife raid on a Montana ranch unreasonable and that Fish and Wildlife agents did not enjoy qualified immunity for their actions because they could not reasonably have believed their conduct was lawful.
By contrast, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) ruled 6-5 in April 1998 that state and federal law enforcement officers who searched the home of Charles and Geraldine Wilson in Maryland were immune from any liability for allowing two Washington Post reporters to accompany them because it would not have been obvious to reasonable officers that the media’s presence violated the Fourth Amendment.
O’Connor described the execution of the warrant in Maryland as an “amazing” and “extreme” invasion of the Wilson’s home and noted that the media were not “necessary” for the execution of the warrant.
However, several justices questioned the practicality of excluding all third parties from searches. They cited translators, attorneys for individuals subject to searches, law students, and individuals who can identify stolen property as parties that often aid in the execution of warrants and could be prevented from doing so if the Court were to impose broad or “bright-line” restrictions on access.
Souter characterized the issue of which third parties may accompany law enforcement officers during the execution of warrants without violating the Fourth Amendment as “murky.” (Cable News Network, Inc. v. Berger; Media Counsel: P. Cameron DeVore, Seattle; Hanlon v. Berger; Officers’ Counsel: Richard A. Cordray; Wilson v. Layne; Officers’ Counsel: Richard A. Cordray and Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill)