Wilson v. Layne 98-0083, May 24, 1999

Fact: While executing a warrant to arrest petitioners’ son in their home, respondents, deputy federal marshals and local sheriff’s deputies, invited a newspaper reporter and a photographer to accompany them. The warrant made no mention of such a media “ride-along.” The officers’ early morning entry into the home prompted a confrontation with petitioners, and a protective sweep revealed that the son was not in the house. The reporters observed and photographed the incident but were not involved in the execution of the warrant. Their newspaper never published the photographs they took of the incident. Petitioners sued the officers in their personal capacities for money damages, contending that the officers’ actions in bringing the media to observe and record the attempted execution of the arrest warrant violated their Fourth Amendment rights. The District Court denied respondents’ motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. In reversing, the Court of Appeals declined to decide whether the officers’ actions violated the Fourth Amendment, but concluded that because no court had held at the time of the search that media presence during a police entry into a residence constituted such a violation, the right allegedly violated was not “clearly established” and thus respondents were entitled to qualified immunity.

Issue: Whether the search warrant and seizure violated the right of the petitioner went the respondent invited members of media to “ride-along” during the serving of the said warrant.

Held: Yes, media “ride-along” in a home violates the Fourth Amendment, but because the state of the law was not clearly established at the time the entry in this case took place, respondent officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Respondent violates the Fourth Amendment rights of homeowners for police to bring members of the media or other third parties into their home during the execution of a warrant when the presence of the third parties in the home was not in aid of the warrant’s execution. The Amendment embodies centuries-old principles of respect for the privacy of the home, which apply where, as here, police enter a home under the authority of an arrest warrant in order to take into custody the suspect named in the warrant. It does not necessarily follow from the fact that the officers were entitled to enter petitioners’ home that they were entitled to bring a reporter and a photographer with them. The Fourth Amendment requires that police actions in execution of a warrant be related to the objectives of the authorized intrusion. Certainly the presence of the reporters, who did not engage in the execution of the warrant or assist the police in their task, was not related to the objective of the authorized intrusion, the apprehension of petitioners’ son. Taken in their entirety, the reasons advanced by respondents to support the reporters’ presence–publicizing the government’s efforts to combat crime, facilitating accurate reporting on law enforcement activities, minimizing police abuses, and protecting suspects and the officers–fall short of justifying media ride-alongs. Although the presence of third parties during the execution of a warrant may in some circumstances be constitutionally permissible, the presence of these third parties was not.

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