Skip to content

High court grants review in media "ride-along" cases

Post categories

  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
High court grants review in media "ride-along" cases 11/30/98 U.S. SUPREME COURT--The U.S. Supreme Court granted review of two media…

High court grants review in media “ride-along” cases

11/30/98

U.S. SUPREME COURT–The U.S. Supreme Court granted review of two media “ride-along” cases in early November in order to determine whether the presence of news media during police searches violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court has yet to consider CNN’s appeal of a finding in one of the ride-along cases that characterized CNN as a state actor and exposed it to liability for civil rights violations.

The CNN case is on appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.), and stemmed from a raid by agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a Montana ranch. A CNN crew accompanied the agents. The ranch owners were suspected of poisoning endangered wildlife, including eagles, in an effort to protect their livestock.

The other case the Court will consider, on appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.), involves the search of the home of a Maryland couple whose son had violated his parole. A reporter and a photographer from the Washington Post accompanied law enforcement officers on the search, but are not parties to the case.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco held in November 1997 that a CNN camera crew, by videotaping the Montana raid, had worked so closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service in executing the search warrant that CNN and the government had become joint state actors. The court further held that the presence of the media during the March 1993 raid rendered the search unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and concluded that the Fish and Wildlife agents did not enjoy qualified immunity from liability for civil rights violations because they could not reasonably have believed their conduct had been lawful.

In contrast, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond held by a 6-5 vote in April 1998 that the officers who searched the home of Charles and Geraldine Wilson in Maryland were immune from any liability they might have incurred by permitting two Washington Post journalists to accompany them on their search.

When the search occurred in April 1992, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond said, it had not been “clearly established” that media presence during searches constituted an unreasonable search and seizure. Consequently, the court concluded that it would not have been obvious to reasonable officers that the ride-alongs violated the Fourth Amendment, and immunity was thus appropriate. That court, however, did not decide whether the media’s presence during the early- morning search actually violated the Wilson’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The Ninth Circuit court also had dismissed claims against CNN under the federal wiretap act and under state conversions laws — for the alleged “capture” of images and voices — and had refused to bar CNN from further airing its report. In early November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review those holdings. The high court has neither denied nor granted review of CNN’s appeal of the same court’s finding that it became a state actor by accompanying Fish and Wildlife agents on the raid.

The U.S. Supreme Court has consolidated the two ride-along cases for purposes of a limited review, and will hear arguments on the issues of whether law enforcement officers violated the Fourth Amendment by allowing members of the news media to accompany them and to observe and record the execution of search warrants, and if such ride-alongs do violate the Fourth Amendment, whether officers nonetheless are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity. (Cable News Network, Inc. v. Berger; Media Counsel: P. Cameron DeVore, Seattle; Hanlon v. Berger; Wilson v. Layne; Officers’ Counsel: Stuart Nathan, Baltimore)