Justices curtail police observers

Entry by 'ride-alongs' into private areas is ruled unconstitutional

May 25, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court imposed a tight new limit yesterday on the police practice of taking along reporters, photographers and other observers to watch arrests or searches -- an activity that supplies much of the film footage for today's "reality television."

In a unanimous ruling in Maryland and Montana cases, the court declared it unconstitutional for police or federal agents to include outsiders when a police operation enters a private home or other private property.

"Police may not bring along third parties during an entry into a private home for purposes unrelated to those justifying [an arrest or search] warrant," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote.

The decision will still allow police to take along reporters, photographers and others on routine patrols and other operations in public places, and will not bar entries into private homes or property if the owner gives consent.

Since the court was laying down its rule for the first time, it decided -- by a separate 8-1 vote -- that police and federal law enforcement authorities cannot be sued for damages over past so-called ride-alongs.

Until yesterday, it was not clear that ride-alongs that led onto private property were invalid, it said, so officers involved previously have immunity from damage claims.

The decision did not settle other questions that linger about ride-alongs: whether the media can be sued for entering a private space along with the police, and whether city officials -- such as the mayor or city council members -- could also be sued for going along.

The decision explicitly protects private residences and property close to a home, such as a back yard. It may also protect other private areas -- for example, a field of grain some distance from the farmhouse -- but the court did not spell those out, leaving that to be decided a case at a time.

The court did make clear that police are potentially liable for damages for invasion of privacy for the officers' role in taking along any observer who is not necessary to help carry out a search or an arrest on private property.

No change in Baltimore

Baltimore police said they will not curtail their ride-along program, which includes the media as well as city politicians, college students and community leaders, since department rules bar such outsiders from going into homes or businesses without the owner's consent, according to spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr.

"Ride-alongs have always been an excellent public relations and community partnership tool," Weinhold said. "We find that citizens who ride in a police car have a much greater appreciation for the challenges of law enforcement."

Similar restrictions on allowing the media to enter private property are in effect in Howard and Carroll counties.

In Westminster, Police Chief Sam Leppo said reporters, photographers and television cameramen are not allowed to accompany officers serving warrants.

"It's just not appropriate," Leppo said. "We even stopped allowing new reporters to ride with an officer for a few hours to learn the city limits and get a feel for what we are doing, mainly because of insurance liability concerns."

Baltimore County police and Maryland State Police said the ruling would not change their policies.

"It has long been the policy of this agency to bar the media from the execution of search warrants -- so this will mean no change for us," said Bill Toohey, spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department. The policy, which has been in effect for "as long as anyone can remember," he said, was designed to protect the privacy of citizens.

Two cases -- in Maryland and Montana -- led to yesterday's ruling. One of the incidents occurred in Rockville. U.S. marshals, pursuing a fugitive, raided the home of his parents, Charles H. and Geraldine E. Wilson, in the early morning of April 16, 1992. He was not there.

Accompanying the police were a Washington Post reporter and photographer, who were there under a U.S. Marshal Service policy of publicizing its hunt for fugitives.

In the other case, federal wildlife agents took along a Cable News Network crew when the agents raided a ranch near Billings, Mont., in 1993. The rancher, Paul W. Berger, was suspected of poisoning wildlife.

The two cases went to the Supreme Court after lower federal court decisions differed about police liability for ride-alongs.

Chief Justice Rehnquist's opinion was supported by the eight other justices on the constitutional issue. Only Justice John Paul Stevens dissented on the ruling giving immunity to officers in incidents before yesterday's ruling.

AIDS case refused

In another action yesterday, the court refused to hear the appeal of a Bangor, Maine, dentist who claimed that he was illegally put at risk by a lower-court ruling requiring him to fill teeth for a patient who was infected with the AIDS virus but did not have the full-blown disease. The patient was protected against discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the lower court ruled.

The court, in a separate unanimous ruling on the disabilities act, decided that a worker who applies for and receives Social Security disability benefits is not automatically barred from later making a claim of a right to work as a disabled person under that act.

But, having received benefits as a disabled person, the court stressed, an individual must be able to explain why that disability does not disqualify the person from holding a job and gaining protection against discrimination.

Sun staff writers Peter Hermann, Mike Farabaugh, Dail Willis and Alice Lukens contributed to this article.

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