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Media presence during home searches violates subjects' rights

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Media presence during home searches violates subjects' rights 05/31/99 U.S. SUPREME COURT--Law enforcement officers who permit the news media to…

Media presence during home searches violates subjects’ rights


U.S. SUPREME COURT–Law enforcement officers who permit the news media to accompany them across the threshold of a home when serving a search warrant violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures. The officers would be vulnerable to civil liability, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held in late May.

Eight of the justices, however, ruled that the officers involved in the 1992 search that sparked the lawsuit were entitled to qualified immunity for bringing a photographer and reporter from The Washington Post into the home of Charles and Geraldine Wilson in Maryland, as they searched for the couple’s fugitive son, because the state of the law was not clear at that time. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented on this point, arguing that “it has long been clearly established that officers may not bring third parties into private homes to witness the execution of a warrant.”

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that the presence of the news media did not further the objectives of an authorized intrusion by law enforcement officers into a home to execute a search or arrest warrant. The ostensible benefits of media presence — accurately informing the public about law enforcement efforts to control crime, minimizing police abuses and protecting officers from violence by the subjects of searches and arrests by recording those events — were outweighed by privacy interests of homeowners.

“The Washington Post reporters in the Wilsons’ home were working on a story for their own purposes. They were not present for the purpose of protecting the officers, much less the Wilsons. A private photographer was acting for private purposes, as evidenced in part by the fact that the newspaper and not the police retained the photographs,” Rehnquist wrote.

The Court agreed in November 1998 to review conflicting opinions from federal appellate courts on the issue of whether the presence of the news media can transform otherwise legal searches into violations of the Fourth Amendment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) had ruled 6-5 in April 1998 that the officers who searched the Wilson home in Maryland were immune from any liability for allowing the reporters to accompany them because it would not have been obvious to reasonable officers at the time that the media’s presence violated the Fourth Amendment.

In a companion case, the Court vacated a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) that U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers who allowed a CNN camera crew to accompany them on a raid of a Montana ranch in 1993 violated the Fourth Amendment. The high court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its ruling in light of the court’s finding that the law was unclear at the time of the raid. (Hanlon v. Berger; Officers’ Counsel: Richard Cordray, Grove City, Ohio; Wilson v. Layne; Officers’ Counsel: Richard Cordray, Grove City, Ohio and Lawrence Fletcher-Hill, Baltimore, Md.)