High Court Protects Fourth Amendment Rights in Media "Ride-Alongs" with Police

May 24, 1999 12:00 am

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Monday, May 24, 1999

WASHINGTON — Reaffirming that a person’s home is his or her castle, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that the Fourth Amendment does not allow police to bring members of the press into a private home uninvited, even when serving a warrant.

In reaching its ruling, the court cited a 1604 English court decision stating that “the house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress.”

At issue in Wilson v. Layne, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, the ACLU of Maryland and the national ACLU, was whether law enforcement officers wanting publicity for their efforts had turned a legal search into an unconstitutional invasion of privacy when they invited news media to follow them into a private home without the consent of the residents.

A second question in the case was whether the police officers would be immune from personal liability to the residents if their conduct violated the Constitution.

In an opinion authored by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the unanimous Court agreed with the ACLU’s argument that inviting the media into someone’s home without consent violated the Fourth Amendment, which “embodies this centuries-old principle of respect for privacy of the home.” But regarding immunity from liability, the court said that the state of the law was “undeveloped” in April 1992, when the search occurred, and the officers were therefore not personally liable for damages to the residents.

“Law enforcement officials can no longer have any doubt that their conduct must be guided by the Bill of Rights and not by the demands of infotainment,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area.

“The Supreme Court today reaffirmed that government intrusions into people’s homes are presumptively unconstitutional, and that law enforcement agencies do not have carte blanche to expose a person’s privacy to the whole world via the news media just because a person is suspected of a crime,” he added.

The court’s ruling on the immunity issue does not mean that the homeowners will not receive compensation for the violation of their rights, Spitzer explained. A claim for compensation directly from the federal government remains pending in the lower courts, and the government is not protected by the same immunity that shields individual officers when the law is unclear.

The case began in the early morning hours of April 1992, when Charles Wilson and his family — including his four-year-old granddaughter — were awakened by plainclothes members of the U.S. Marshals and the Montgomery County, Maryland sheriff’s department, who burst in with guns drawn. Accompanying the officers were a reporter and photographer from The Washington Post.

The officers were seeking the Wilsons’ fugitive adult son, who was not at their home. He turned himself in later that day at the urging of his parents.

In legal papers filed with the court, the ACLU said that a search or arrest warrant “provides only a limited privilege for those whose entry into the home is necessary to accomplish the purposes of the warrant.”

Clearly, the ACLU said, the presence of the media was unrelated to any legitimate law enforcement purpose, and thus violated the Fourth Amendment. “On the facts of this case, moreover,” the ACLU said, “the unlawfulness of [the officers’] conduct is made even more apparent by the humiliating circumstances under which the Wilsons were observed and photographed.”

“The Supreme Court today confirmed that police officers have no legal authority to invite the press into a person’s home, and the press has no more right to enter a private house than any other private person,” said Richard K. Willard, an ACLU cooperating attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court on March 23.

The case is Wilson v. Layne, No. 98-83. Attorneys in the case are volunteer attorneys Richard K. Willard of Washington, D.C. law firm Steptoe & Johnson, Richard Seligman of Washington, D.C. who represented the Wilsons in federal district court and before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Arthur B. Spitzer of the ACLU of the National Capital Area.

The ACLU was not involved in a similar case, Hanlon v. Berger, No. 97-1927 which was also decided today. In that case, the Court vacated the decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further consideration by the lower courts in light of today’s decision in Wilson v. Layne.

Additional information on the case is available at:

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