U.S. Supreme Court to Review Constitutionality of Police 'Ride Alongs'

Article excerpt

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in early November to review two media "ride along" cases to resolve apparent contradictions in federal appellate court decisions regarding whether the presence of news media during law enforcement searches violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. However, the Court has declined to directly address the issue of whether members of the news media can become state actors by participating in ride alongs.

The appellate court decisions involved cases in which the subjects of government searches and seizures had sued law enforcement officials, alleging that the presence of the news media during those searches rendered them unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) determined in November 1997 that it violated the Fourth Amendment for a CNN crew to accompany U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents on a raid of a Montana ranch. Fish and Wildlife agents suspected ranch owners were poisoning endangered wildlife, including eagles, in an effort to protect their livestock, and a CNN crew videotaped the raid. (See NM&L, Winter 1998 dr Spring 1998)

The unanimous Ninth Circuit court further concluded that, by arranging the videotaping of the raid in advance, CNN and the Fish and Wildlife Service worked so closely together that they had become joint state actors engaged in the execution of the Service's search warrant. The ruling subjects CNN to potential liability for Fourth Amendment violations.

Without explanation, the high court neither denied nor granted review of CNN's appeal of the Ninth Circuit's finding that it became a state actor by accompanying Fish and Wildlife agents on the Montana raid. CNN, however, is a party to the U.S. Supreme Court proceeding and filed a brief in late December arguing the Fish and Wildlife search filmed by its camera crew was reasonable, emphasizing that ride-alongs serve the interests of the public, including public oversight of law enforcement, deterrence of crime, curbing potential police misconduct, and curbing violence against law enforcement officers.

In contrast, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) ruled 6-5 in April 1998 that the police officers who searched the home of Charles and Geraldine Wilson in Maryland, accompanied by a reporter and photographer from The Washington Post, were immune from any liability for allowing journalists to ride along.

At the time the police searched the Wilson home in April 1992, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond found, it had not been "clearly established" that a media presence during searches constituted an unreasonable search and seizure. The court concluded that it would not have been obvious to reasonable officers that the ride alongs violated the Fourth Amendment, and immunity was thus appropriate. The same court, however, did not decide whether the media's presence during the early morning search actually violated the Wilsons' Fourth Amendment rights. (See NM&L, Spring 1998)

The U.S. Supreme Court has consolidated the two cases for purposes of a limited review on the issue of whether law enforcement officers violated the Fourth Amendment by allowing members of the news media to accompany them and to observe and record the execution of search warrants. …