Suit against officers for media ‘ride-along’ thrown out
FOURTH CIRCUIT–Police officers cannot be sued for allowing reporters to accompany them onto private property, the federal Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.) ruled in early April.
The full court narrowly affirmed a three-judge appellate panel’s April 1997 decision that officers are entitled to qualified immunity in such situations, reversing a ruling of a federal District Court in Greenbelt, Md.
The court voted 6-5 that federal and state law enforcement officers did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Rockville, Md., residents Charles and Geraldine Wilson when it permitted two journalists from The Washington Post to accompany them on a raid of the couple’s home in 1992.
The court’s opinion, written by Judge William Wilkins, did not decide whether the presence of the media during the search was a violation of the Wilsons’ rights, but instead found that the officers were immune from suit because the law regarding whether such “ride- alongs” violated the Fourth Amendment was unclear in 1992.
Five of the six judges who held that the officers could not be sued also concluded that the officers could have reasonably believed that the reporters’ presence served a legitimate law enforcement purpose by improving public oversight of police investigations. The sixth judge, H. Emory Widener, wrote separately to concur only in the result.
Writing for the dissent, Judge Francis Murnaghan found that “the entry by the news media, without mention in the warrant, was plainly unreasonable in Fourth Amendment terms.” Murnaghan argued that the court should have followed the 1994 holding of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.) that the presence of journalists during the execution of search warrants was an obvious and unreasonable violation of clearly-established constitutional protections of privacy. The dissent also observed that the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) held in 1997 that federal officers and members of the media who accompanied them during a search could both be sued for violating Fourth Amendment rights. (Wilson v. Layne; Officers’ Counsel: Stuart Nathan and John Howard, Baltimore)