Officers not liable for taking media along on execution of warrant
SOUTH CAROLINA–In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Spartanburg, S.C. (4th Cir.) ruled that police officers are entitled to qualified immunity from lawsuits based on having permitted reporters to accompany them into a private home.
The appellate court, reversing a lower court decision which had denied the officers’ claim of immunity, held that the officers’ actions did not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known” at the time. The court also held that other courts have found that such conduct does not violate constitutional principles.
A Rockville, Md. family alleged that their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when federal and state law enforcement officers entered their home to execute an arrest warrant for their adult son in April 1992. The son, who did not live with his parents, had violated the terms of his probation and was considered a violent offender by police.
The journalists, employed by The Washington Post, were participating in a two-week investigative story undertaken by the newspaper.
The U.S. District Court in Rockville held that the officers had violated the Fourth Amendment by permitting the two newspaper reporters to accompany them into the home.
The appellate court ruled that at the time of the ride-along, no court had held that it was unconstitutional for law enforcement officers to invite journalists to accompany them into a private home during a search.
The appellate court stressed that although the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.) had ruled in 1994 that officers violated the Fourth Amendment in a similar case, subsequent rulings have granted officers qualified immunity from suit. The court rejected the Second Circuit’s finding that the unlawfulness of the officers’ conduct must have been apparent to them. (Wilson v. Layne)