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The Supreme Court

Making Your House a Media Circus

In high profile cases, it's not unusual to see hordes of media waiting outside a house as a big name celebrity or well-known criminal is being arrested on a warrant. Usually by the time a warrant is issued for arrest in a case involving a well-known person, coverage already has been in the media for weeks. In these cases members of the media are probably already camped out at the person's house waiting for something to happen, or they've gotten a tip from a source inside the police department that an arrest is about to happen.

Just the Facts

Operation Gunsmoke was a national fugitive apprehension program run by the attorney general of the United States in 1992. Its purpose was to arrest “armed individuals wanted on federal and/or state and local warrants for serious drug and other violent felonies.” Ultimately the program resulted in over 3,000 arrests in 40 metropolitan areas.

Most arrest warrants do not involve celebrities. More often they involve people you probably don't even know. Sometimes even though the person is not well known, the government wants to a make a public spectacle of the arrest to promote a certain type of crime fighting. If police take the press along to arrest someone, they could be charged with violating the privacy rights established by the Fourth Amendment. These rights were first clearly defined by the Supreme Court on May 24, 1999 in Wilson v. Lane, which involved a case where police officers invited media representatives into a private home while executing an arrest warrant.

Court Connotations

Qualified immunity protects government officials from being sued for liability on civil damages provided their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.

The arrest in question was part of a major nationwide program called “Operation Gunsmoke” that involved both U.S. marshals and state and local policemen. One of the targets of this high profile operation was Dominic Wilson, son of Charles and Geraldine Wilson, whose arrest warrant indicated he had “violated his probation on previous felony charges of robbery, theft, and assault with intent to rob.” His address in the official police files was the home of his parents in Rockville, Maryland.

Living Laws

The police do violate your Fourth Amendment rights to privacy by bringing along the media to execute a warrant unless for some reason they are assisting with the execution of that warrant.

In an attempt to get local publicity for the nationwide effort, police invited a reporter and photographer from the Washington Post to “ride along” during the early morning hours on April 16, 1992, to execute the Dominic Wilson warrants. Charles and Geraldine Wilson were still in bed when they heard the police enter the house. Some wake-up call!

Charles Wilson, dressed only in briefs, ran to his living room to investigate the noise and found five men in street clothes with guns. He angrily demanded an explanation, and according to police records repeatedly cursed at the officers. Since they believed him to be Dominic Wilson, they subdued him to the floor. Geraldine Wilson then entered the living room to investigate. She was in a nightgown and observed her husband being restrained by the armed officers.

After making a sweep of the house, the officers learned Dominic Wilson was not there and departed. The Post photographer took numerous photographs of the entire fiasco. The print reporter also observed the entire confrontation, but neither had any role in the actual execution of the arrest warrant. The Post never printed the photographs of the incident.

The Wilsons sued the law enforcement entities—U.S. Marshals Service and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department—saying that by bringing members of the media to observe and record the attempted execution of the arrest warrant their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

The police defended themselves on the basis that they had a qualified immunity from being sued, which the district court denied. The 4th Circuit Court reversed the district court and ruled that the police did have a qualified immunity from being sued and did not even rule on the issue of the Fourth Amendment violation. The circuit court held that at the time of the search no court had found that police were violating Fourth Amendment rights by allowing media to “ride along” during police entry into a residence; therefore, it had not been clearly established that bringing media along on the execution of a warrant inside a home was a violation of constitutional rights.

Circuit courts had ruled differently on this Fourth Amendment issue prior to this case making it to the Supreme Court, so the Court decided to take the case. In a unanimous ruling written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Court found that the Fourth Amendment rights of the homeowners had been violated. He wrote:

  • “Certainly the presence of reporters inside the home was not related to the objectives of the authorized intrusion. Respondents concede that the reporters did not engage in the execution of the warrant, and did not assist the police in their task. The reporters therefore were not present for any reason related to the justification for police entry into the home—the apprehension of Dominic Wilson.
  • “This is not a case in which the presence of the third parties directly aided in the execution of the warrant. Where the police enter a home under the authority of a warrant to search for stolen property, the presence of third parties for the purpose of identifying the stolen property has long been approved by this Court and our common-law tradition …
  • “Respondents argue that the presence of the Washington Post reporters in the Wilsons' home nonetheless served a number of legitimate law enforcement purposes … It may well be that media ride-alongs further the law enforcement objectives of the police in a general sense, but that is not the same as furthering the purposes of the search …
  • “Respondents next argue that the presence of third parties could serve the law enforcement purpose of publicizing the government's efforts to combat crime, and facilitate accurate reporting on law enforcement activities. There is certainly language in our opinions interpreting the First Amendment which points to the importance of “the press” in informing the general public about the administration of criminal justice … No one could gainsay the truth of these observations, or the importance of the First Amendment in protecting press freedom from abridgement by the government. But the Fourth Amendment also protects a very important right, and in the present case it is in terms of that right that the media ride-alongs must be judged.
  • “Surely the possibility of good public relations for the police is simply not enough, standing alone, to justify the ride-along intrusion into a private home. 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 reasons advanced by respondents, taken in their entirety, fall short of justifying the presence of media inside a home. We hold that it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment for police to bring members of the media or other third parties into a home during the execution of a warrant when the presence of the third parties in the home was not in aid of the execution of the warrant.”

The Court did grant the police officers qualified immunity from being sued for damages in this case because all but one of the justices believed the Fourth Amendment rights had not been clearly established by legal precedent. While the ruling regarding the Fourth Amendment rights was unanimous, Justice Stevens did dissent on the issue of qualified immunity. He believed there was clear precedent and the officers should have realized that it was a violation to bring along the press. Stevens wrote:

  • “In my view, however, the homeowner's right to protection against this type of trespass was clearly established long before April 16, 1992. My sincere respect for the competence of the typical member of the law enforcement profession precludes my assent to the suggestion that 'a reasonable officer could have believed that bringing members of the media into a home during the execution of an arrest warrant was lawful' … I therefore disagree with the Court's resolution of the conflict in the Circuits on the qualified immunity issue. The clarity of the constitutional rule, a federal statute, common-law decisions, and the testimony of the senior law enforcement officer all support my position that it has long been clearly established that officers may not bring third parties into private homes to witness the execution of a warrant … In its decision today the Court has not announced a new rule of constitutional law. Rather, it has refused to recognize an entirely unprecedented request for an exception to a well-established principle. Police action in the execution of a warrant must be strictly limited to the objectives of the authorized intrusion. That principle, like the broader protection provided by the Fourth Amendment itself, represents the confluence of two important sources: our English forefathers' traditional respect for the sanctity of the private home and the American colonists' hatred of the general warrant.”

Whether or not your privacy was protected before this case may be in dispute, but one thing you can be sure of today is that if the police allow the media inside your home when executing a warrant, you do have the right to challenge that in court under the Fourth Amendment.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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