Justices to decide if police violate rights by letting press 'ride along' Cases involve 2 couples who sued officers over raids in Md., Montana

November 10, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With real-life police drama gaining wide popularity as television entertainment, the Supreme Court moved yesterday to consider the constitutionality of taking the news media along on police operations.

The court agreed to hear "ride-along" cases from Maryland and Montana that test whether police or federal agents violate people's privacy rights when the officers allow news reporters and photographers to accompany them onto private property to document a search or an arrest.

In the Maryland case, a Montgomery County couple was routed out of bed, he in undershorts, she in a nightgown, as federal marshals with guns drawn burst into their home in 1992 to look for their son, who was a fugitive. The son was not there.

Washington Post news team

A Washington Post reporter and a photographer accompanied the officers. Photos were taken but were not published.

In the Montana case, a rancher suspected of killing bald eagles was filmed and his conversations taped -- without his knowledge -- by CNN crews after federal wildlife agents moved onto the ranch in 1993 to conduct a search.

One of the agents wore a concealed microphone, and CNN cameras, without labels, were mounted on the trucks used in the operation. Portions of the tapes were shown on CNN shows about the environment.

The Maryland couple, Charles and Geraldine Wilson, and the Montana rancher and his wife, Paul and Erma Berger, sued the officers, arguing that the "ride-alongs" violated the Constitution's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures." The Bergers also sued CNN.

Their cases led to conflicting rulings by federal appeals courts.

In the Maryland case, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police and federal officers have immunity to lawsuits over ride-alongs, on the theory that, at the time of the incident, no court had ruled such police actions to be unconstitutional.

Since then, courts have split on the issue. The appeals court said it was not ruling on whether those actions should now be declared unconstitutional.

In the Montana dispute, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that both the federal agents and CNN had acted unconstitutionally because of the inclusion of the media microphones and cameras in the operation. CNN, the appeals court said, is equally to blame because it was a "joint actor" with government agents.

Officers' actions questioned

Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to rule only on whether police or federal agents act unconstitutionally in allowing ride-alongs.

The justices took no action on CNN's separate appeal, which asked to be freed of any constitutional liability for taking part. CNN contended that it is not a part of law enforcement and should not be treated as a government actor when it goes along, for legitimate journalistic purposes, on police operations.

That separate question would become newly important if the court does rule against the officers and finds the privacy invasion unconstitutional. But it could disappear as an issue if the court rules for the officers, finding no constitutional violation.

The Wilsons, in their appeal in the Maryland case, said that ride-alongs are "a new and growing phenomenon that threatens important privacy interests" protected by the Constitution's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures."

A Supreme Court ruling on the two cases is expected sometime next year.

In a separate order, the court yesterday agreed to decide whether it is unconstitutional for states to be sued in their own courts by private individuals who claim their state was violating a federal law. Federal courts are divided on whether the fact that Congress has created legal rights in a federal law means those rights can be enforced against a state in its own courts.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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