WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court Monday agreed to hear an appeal from a Montgomery County couple who sued police for bringing a newspaper reporter and photographer along on a raid of their home.
A lower court said that Charles and Geraldine Wilson could not sue the U.S. Marshal’s Service and Montgomery County Police for the 1992 early-morning raid in a search for the Wilsons’ son.
What authorities found instead were the Wilsons in their nightclothes, whose pictures were taken by a Washington Post photographer who was on the raid with a reporter working on a story.
The Wilsons claimed that, by letting the media come into their home uninvited, the marshals and officers violated their 4th Amendment right to be secure in their home against unreasonable search and seizure.
At the core of the 4th Amendment, the Wilsons argued in their petition to the high court, “stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion.”
Their attorney, Richard Seligman, said appeals courts around the country are divided on how much leeway police can be granted when bringing media into a home.
“The issue is clearly divided among the circuits and it’s important for all sides, the press, the police and citizens to have this issue resolved,” Seligman said.
The Wilsons were lying in bed about 6:45 a.m. on April 16, 1992, when they heard knocking at their front door. Mr. Wilson got out of bed to investigate and was met in the living room by three plain-clothes police officers and the Washington Post reporter and photographer.
The group had been let in by the Wilsons’ 8-year-old granddaughter, who one officer grabbed and pulled out of the house, Seligman said.
The authorities had an arrest warrant for Dominic Jerome Wilson, the couple’s son who had allegedly violated his probation. He was not in the house.
When Mrs. Wilson went into the living room, wearing only a sheer nightgown, she found her husband, still in his underpants, belly-down on the floor with an officer’s knee in his back and gun to his head.
The Post photographer took pictures throughout the incident but the pictures were never published, according to court documents.
The marshals were teaching the county officers how to round up a violent felon and the Post reporter and photographer were there in accordance with the U.S. Marshal’s Service’s ride-along policy.
None of the county officers asked the Post staffers to leave or restricted their activity, even after it was confirmed that Mr. Wilson was not Dominic and that Dominic was not in the house, court documents stated.
The officers later found Dominic at his girlfriend’s apartment, where they told him to walk to a nearby police station and turn himself in. He did so, according to court documents.
The Wilsons filed suit in U.S. District Court, which said the police had a right to enter the home but that they could be sued for letting the media into the home. That ruling was immediately appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, which said in a 6-5 decision that the officers could not be sued.
The appeals court said the officers had “qualified immunity” from prosecution because at the time of the incident they “had no clearly established law” dictating proper action regarding media involvement in an arrest.
“It’s an interesting case,” said Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Nathan. “It’s obvious different judges have different opinions on this matter.
“The bottom line is, I believe the government defendants acted reasonably given their understanding of the law at the time,” said Nathan, who is representing the officers.
But Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the National Capital Area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, had a much different opinion.
“I think this case is another illustration of the continued erosion of privacy in our society, that the police would even think that they could invite the media into a private home without permission and that the media would even enter,” said Spitzer, who helped represent the Wilsons.
The high court on Monday said it would decide whether the state violated the Wilsons’ 4th Amendment rights by bringing media into their home. No date has been set for arguments in the case.