The Unclearly Established Rule against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures

Article excerpt

Wilson v. Layne, 119 S. Ct. 1692 (1999)


In Wilson v. Layne,(1) the Supreme Court unanimously held that law enforcement officers violate the Fourth Amendment when they allow members of the media to accompany them into a private home during the execution of a search warrant. The Court declared that such actions on the part of law enforcement officers are unreasonable.(2) Nevertheless, the Court held that the officers in Layne were entitled to a defense of qualified immunity because the violated right was not "clearly established" at the time of the violation.(3) According to the Court, a reasonable law enforcement officer could have believed, at the time of the violation, that she was not violating any law by allowing the media into a private home during the execution of a warrant.(4)

This Note argues that the Supreme Court correctly held that federal and state law enforcement officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they allowed two members of the media to accompany them into the petitioners' home. This intrusion upon the petitioners' privacy was unreasonable because the media presence went beyond the clearly stated bounds of the warrant.(5) This Note also argues, however, that the Court erroneously held that the law enforcement officers in Layne were entitled to a defense of qualified immunity. The law was "clearly established" at the time of the violation such that a reasonable officer should have known that the actions at issue in this case would constitute a violation of the well-established principles of the Fourth Amendment.



The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that:

      The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers,
   and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
   violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported
   by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be
   searched, and the persons or things to be seized.(6)

The protection guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment is much older than the Amendment itself and is rooted in the common law of England.(7) Semayne's Case, perhaps the most cited English case in this context, is famous for the statement that "the house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence, as for his repose."(8) This sentiment is echoed in subsequent English cases(9) as well as in William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England.(10) While the Supreme Court has never held that the Fourth Amendment protects a zone of privacy generally, it has made clear in a long line of cases that one of the central purposes of the Fourth Amendment is to protect a zone of privacy within the home from unwarranted and unreasonable government intrusion.(11) To hold that there has been a violation of the Fourth Amendment, a court must find that there was government action,(12) that there was in fact a search or seizure,(13) and that the search or seizure was unreasonable.(14) As the first two elements are not at issue in this case, this Note will focus on the third requirement.

A search or seizure can be unreasonable in a number of ways, with perhaps the most obvious being a warrantless search without probable cause.(15) Even with a warrant, however, a search can still be unreasonable. In Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,(16) the Supreme Court stated in a footnote that the Fourth Amendment requires that an officer executing a search warrant stay strictly within the bounds set by the warrant.(17) Five years later in Andresen v. Maryland,(18) the Court warned that responsible officials must assure that searches and seizures "are conducted in a manner that minimizes unwarranted intrusions into privacy."(19) Thus, the Court began to make clear the proposition that a warrant alone would not suffice to make an intrusion into the privacy of a home reasonable. …