WASHINGTON – A U.S. appeals court reversed a lower-court ruling and decided law enforcement officers did not violate the rights of a Rockville family when they allowed a reporter and photographer to enter their home during a botched attempt to locate a fugitive.
Charles H. Wilson, now 50, said he was “super upset” with Friday’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, because he felt his family’s constitutional right to privacy was violated during the 1992 incident.
“I was laying on the floor in nothing but a pair of briefs while a woman was standing there taking photographs,” the Rockville resident said.
J.B. Howard, assistant district attorney for Baltimore, who argued the case for the officers, said the decision “doesn’t necessarily give any clear-cut guidance for the future.”
The judges simply ruled the officers conducted themselves within their knowledge of what was appropriate, Howard said.
According to court records, on April 16, 1992, at 6:45 a.m., U.S. marshals and Montgomery County deputies entered the Wilsons’ home when their then 9-year-old granddaughter responded to loud knocks and opened the door.
Wilson said he was met by men in plain clothes after he got out of bed and began walking down the hallway of his home.
“I looked up and saw four or five white guys with pistols drawn. They were yelling at me to get on the floor,” said Wilson, who is black.
A Washington Post photographer took pictures of Wilson and his wife, Geraldine, in their underwear and nightgown. Wilson was mistaken for his son and forced face-down onto the floor by U.S. marshals, court records state.
“Every time I relive it, it was just like it happened yesterday,” Wilson said, choking back tears.
The officers arrived at the Wilsons’ home as part of “Operation Gunsmoke,” which brought together U.S. marshals and local law enforcement officers throughout 1992 to buckle down on drugs, illegal weapons and fugitives.
The Wilsons’ son, Dominic, now 33, had violated probation, which got him on a list of criminals sought after under the federal operation, said Sgt. Eric Runion of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.
The legal question decided Friday by a three-judge panel of the appeals court was not whether the Wilsons were treated improperly by the officers. The court answered the question: Should the officers have known better than to let the reporter and photographer into the privacy of the Wilsons’ home.
Two of the three judges answered no.
Judge William W. Wilkins Jr. wrote in the court’s decision that the “legal landscape” in April 1992 could not have instructed “reasonable officers” to know that allowing the media into the Wilsons’ home was in violation of their Fourth Amendment right to privacy.
But Judge Donald Russell, writing the dissenting opinion, disagreed.
“Fourth Amendment jurisprudence long ago established that police may not invite reporters into private homes … if those reporters are neither `expressly nor impliedly authorized to be there,’ ” Russell wrote, citing a 1994 decision.
James Felt, an attorney with Steptoe and Johnson who is representing the Wilsons, had made a similar argument. “We think that the law has been clearly established that police cannot bring reporters inside private homes simply to tag along,” Felt said.
He said he has requested a hearing before all 15 judges of the appeals court – a step just below appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight said the decision to allow reporters on the scene was made by the U.S. Marshal’s office. He said Montgomery County deputies were and continue to be prohibited from allowing such media participation.
“It’s very unfortunate. …I’d be upset if I was in bed at 6:30 in the morning and five guys came rushing into my house with guns drawn,” Kight said.
The reporter and photographer had been traveling with the federal marshals for two weeks while working on a story on Operation Gunsmoke. At that time, the U.S. Marshal’s office allowed “ridealongs” with officers and had no rules barring the media from entering homes with them, said spokesman Bill Dempsey.
The following year, the Justice Department decided the ridealongs were inappropriate and stopped the practice, Dempsey said.
Dominic Wilson had not lived with his parents for several years, but listed the Rockville home as his permanent address, which led the marshals to the couple’s door, according to court records. Wilson said he called Dominic immediately after the incident to tell him there was a warrant for his arrest. That day, Wilson said his son turned himself in to police. He was later released on his own recognizance. -30-