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DEA search ruled illegal because of media presence

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TEXAS--A Drug Enforcement Administration agent exceeded the scope of her warrant and thus conducted illegal searches of two methadone clinics…

TEXAS–A Drug Enforcement Administration agent exceeded the scope of her warrant and thus conducted illegal searches of two methadone clinics when she allowed television news crews to film the searches, a federal district judge in Houston held in late August.

Judge Lynn Hughes concluded that the DEA agent had created “a spectacle of invasion” by bringing news crews along on the searches. “Including wholly extraneous outsiders in a search unreasonably exceeds the legal scope of the warrant, violating the [clinic] owner’s rights under the Constitution,” Hughes wrote.

The news crews accompanied DEA agents on raids of methadone clinics run by a medical doctor whose registration allowing him to dispense drugs had been suspended. On one raid, agents brought a crew from a local Fox television station into the clinic. When clinic employees tried to keep the cameras out, a DEA agent told them that the news crews could stay. On another raid, agents were accompanied by a crew from “60 Minutes.”

Following the raids, the doctor who was running the clinics sued the DEA agent-in-charge and alleged that the presence of television crews made the searches unreasonable as a matter of law. Judge Hughes agreed with the doctor and granted the doctor’s motion for summary judgment. Hughes held that the DEA agent, who “deliberately brought the news crews with her” during the searches, exceeded the scope of her warrant when “she allowed the news crews to set foot” on the doctor’s property.

The agent, Hughes concluded, subjected the doctor to unreasonable searches that violated his constitutional rights by bringing the news crews along. Hughes concluded that the agent was liable and ordered that a hearing be held to address the calculation of damages.

Hughes stated that federal law clearly establishes that commercial news crews may not accompany an officer on a search and added, “Nothing in the circumstances of the search plausibly required a reasonable, responsible officer to bring into the clinics private third-parties who were exploiting for their purposes the warrant she held.”

Judge Hughes criticized the DEA agent-in-charge for bringing along the television news crews. The DEA’s agency-wide approval of the filming of such raids could not insulate an agent from individual liability, Hughes wrote, because the agent “was responsible for the execution of the warrants. She had the badge, the warrant, and the authority to investigate.”

In addition, Hughes criticized the DEA for using television crews to publicize its work. DEA “agents cannot convert the property and lives of citizens into consumable supplies for its public relations campaign,” Hughes said in the opinion. (Swate v. Taylor)