ANNAPOLIS – A divided federal appeals court said U.S. marshals and Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies who stormed into a Rockville home with a reporter and photographer in tow cannot be sued by the surprised couple inside.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond on Thursday reversed a lower court’s ruling that the couple could sue, after a Washington Post photographer took pictures of the incident.
But five dissenting judges said police were out of bounds when they let the reporters come in with them. To rule otherwise, they said, is to deny the Fourth Amendment principle that “a man’s home is his castle.”
The case began on April 14, 1992, when U.S. marshals, assisted by sheriff’s deputies, burst into Charles and Geraldine Wilson’s home at 6:45 a.m. looking for their son, Dominic Jerome Wilson.
The Wilsons were in bed when they heard a “commotion” in their home and Mr. Wilson, dressed in his undershorts, went to investigate. He found plainclothes officers in his living room, who subdued him because he was “angry” at the intrusion.
Mrs. Wilson came out of the bedroom, wearing only a sheer nightgown, and saw her husband, still in his undershorts, pinned to the floor with a gun to his head.
The photographer took pictures during the raid, but they were never published.
Dominic, who was wanted for a host of thefts and robberies, was not home at the time of the raid. He turned himself in after the incident.
The Wilsons sued Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond Kight, his deputies, the marshals and their supervisor, Harry Layne, arguing that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by bringing the reporter and photographer into their home.
Kight said his department does not allow the media into a private residence and that he and his deputies had nothing to do with the reporters’ presence in the Wilson home during the raid.
“We would never allow something like that to happen,” Kight said.
But the U.S. Marshals Service had a “ride-along” policy that allowed news media to accompany them on arrests, even in private residences.
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte sided with the Wilsons, saying the reporters were not “serving a legitimate law enforcement purpose” when they went along on the raid. He said the officers violated the Wilsons’ constitutional rights by allowing reporters in without the couple’s consent.
The circuit court reversed Messitte in a 6-5 vote.
The court did not say whether letting the media into the Wilson home was constitutional or appropriate. But it said the officers could not be faulted, since it was not “clearly established” in April 1992 that letting reporters do so violated the homeowner’s rights.
But in a strongly worded dissent, Judge Francis Murnaghan said the officers violated the Wilson’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. He said the reporter’s observations and photography amounted to unreasonable search and seizure.
“The Fourth Amendment guarantees that the sanctity of the home, one’s castle, will not be disturbed unless by warrant,” he said. The warrant made no mention of reporters, he noted.
The Wilsons’ attorney, Richard Seligman, said he was disappointed with the ruling.
He said he will consider an appeal to the Supreme Court, especially since courts have not agreed on the constitutionality of the media entering private homes without the owner’s permission during arrests.
Seligman said that while the Wilson’s son had “some problems,” Charles and Geraldine were “hardworking and upstanding citizens.”
“They were good members of the community,” he said.