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Police officers lose appeal of defamation suit against ABC

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Libel         Jun 4, 2002    

Police officers lose appeal of defamation suit against ABC

  • Three New Jersey officers claimed a PrimeTime Live report portrayed them as racist and violated the state wiretapping law by secretly recording their conversation during a car search.

ABC did not defame three police officers and did not break the state’s wiretapping law when PrimeTime Live broadcast a show on racial profiling, a state appeals court in Trenton, N.J., ruled May 21.

The show called “Driving While Black” used three African-American men as “testers” who were driving in Jamesburg, N.J., in a Mercedes Benz when they were stopped by the officers for changing lanes without signaling. The officers ordered the men out of the car, frisked them and searched inside the car before releasing them. Hidden cameras inside the car and in a van following the Mercedes recorded the stop.

The show aired in November 1996. The officers sued, claiming the show was defamatory and placed them in a false light. The show falsely stated that the car was searched illegally and without consent and portrayed the officers as racist, the lawsuit claimed.

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, ruled that the show was not defamatory and did not place the officers in a false light because the broadcast accurately portrayed a search that was conducted improperly and without consent.

The lawsuit also objected to the secret recording of a conversation between two of the officers while they were searching the car. The officers claimed that the surreptitious taping violated New Jersey’s wiretapping statute, which forbids anyone from intercepting or disclosing the contents of an oral communication.

Under the law, the officers must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their conversation before they can claim that the taping was illegal, the appeals court noted. But the officers had no reasonable expectation of privacy in a conversation that occurred in a car on the shoulder of a busy public highway, the court ruled.

“The four doors of the Mercedes were wide open. . . . (The officers) took no action to shield their privacy,” the opinion said.

Police officers have a diminished expectation of privacy because they hold a position of public trust, the court noted.

The appeals court upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the suit.

(Hornberger v. ABC; Media counsel, Kevin T. Baine, Williams & Connolly, Washington, D.C.) MD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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