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Journalists Accompanying Police Raids
Curbed by Supreme Court


Summer 1999

Police officials can be sued for allowing the media to accompany them on authorized searches of private homes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on May 24 (Hanlon v. Berger, No. 97-1927, and Wilson v. Layne, 119 SCt 1692, 1706, 1999WL320817, 320818) (Linda Greenhouse, "Police Violate Privacy in Home Raids With Journalists," New York Times, May 25, 1999; Jan Crawford, "Court Bans Media From Police Raids in Homes," Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1999; Bennett Roth, "Supreme Court: Police Can Be Sued Over `Media Ride-Alongs,'" Houston Chronicle, May 25, 1999; David G. Savage, "Police Can't Bring Media Into Homes, Court Rules," Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1999).

In cases from Maryland and Montana law enforcement officials were sued for allowing members of the media to accompany them on searches of private property. The justices agreed in a unanimous decision that "media ride-alongs" with police violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. However, because the courts had not previously established such acts as unconstitutional, the officers involved in the two cases could not be sued.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, citing "the right of residential privacy" as a core principle of the Fourth Amendment, said: "Certainly the presence of reporters inside the home was not related to the objectives of the authorized intrusions." He dismissed arguments made by the police and media organizations that having persons from the media accompany police during raids helped promote crime-fighting efforts and deterred police from abusive behavior. "Surely the possibility of good public relations for the police is simply not enough, standing alone, to justify the ride-along intrusion into a home," said Rehnquist. "And even the need for accurate reporting on police issues in general bears no direct relation to the constitutional justification for the police intrusion into a home in order to execute a felony arrest warrant."

The decision will have an impact on "reality-based television" shows, such as the Fox Network's "COPS." Media personnel can still accompany police officers during raids but must stop at the front door, unless residents give them permission to come inside. "This still means ride-alongs with police will be permitted in the vast majority of circumstances anytime you do an activity in public, and most drug arrests and raids occur in public places," said Richard Cordray, an attorney who represented law enforcement in one of the two cases.

"None but the basest of entertainment aims are served by having cops with reporters and photographers at their side breaking down doors to make dramatic public displays of people still presumed innocent," wrote the Seattle Times in an editorial. "The court rulings draw a welcome line at the front door and reminds both police and press that they have no constitutional right to abuse individual rights in pursuit of cheap thrills and tabloid schlock" (Editorial, "Supreme Court Victory Over Tabloid Schlock," Seattle Times, May 26, 1999).

The New York Times, which joined other news organizations arguing that media "ride-alongs" should not be constitutionally forbidden in all cases, wrote: "The Court's interest in privacy is healthy. But its decision could have perverse consequences if police departments misread its narrow holding as a broad license to fence off large areas of police activity from journalistic observation and reporting. In future cases the Court should make clear that its ruling applies only to residences, not to surrounding grounds or public areas" (Editorial, "Privacy and Ride-Alongs," New York Times, May 27, 1999).

Attornies for law enforcement - Richard Cordray, 4900 Grove City Rd., Grove City, OH 43123, Tel: (614) 539-1661; Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, Office of the Attorney General of Maryland, 200 St. Paul Place, 20th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202, Tel: (410) 576-6345.

Attorneys for homeowners - Jay F. Lansing, Moses Law Firm, 300 North 25th St., Billings, MT 59103; Richard Kennon Willard - Steptoe and Johnson, 1330 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20036, Tel: (202) 429-3000.