WASHINGTON – An attorney for a Montgomery County couple asked the Supreme Court Wednesday to draw a “bright line … at the front door” of private homes that would keep police from bringing media in uninvited when they serve a warrant.
The case stemmed from the 1992 raid on Charles and Geraldine Wilson’s Rockville home by U.S. Marshals and Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies, who were looking to arrest the Wilsons’ son.
The officers were accompanied by a reporter and a photographer for The Washington Post, who took never-published pictures of Mr. Wilson on the floor in his boxer shorts with an officer’s gun to his head and his wife in a thin nightgown.
Police later learned that the son they were seeking no longer lived in the house.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called the middle-of-the-night raid on the Wilsons’ home an “extreme” and “amazing” invasion of the couple’s constitutional right to privacy.
But attorneys for the state and federal officers who carried out the raid urged the high court not to bar all media “ride-alongs” with police. They argued that the presence of reporters serves the public interest by providing a check against police aggression and said that benefit should be weighed against the impact of any such intrusion.
But O’Connor said the “balancing test” that the officers’ attorneys favor would pit a nebulous public interest against “the very weighty interest of private homeowners.”
Justice Antonin Scalia brought laughter from the courtroom when he asked the government’s attorneys why officers do not simply say to homeowners, “We’re going to do you a favor and bring in this camera crew … Would you like that?”
Throughout Wednesday’s arguments, Scalia emphasized the importance of homeowner consent and asked why members of the media should have special privileges that “John Q. Public” does not.
The Wilsons’ attorney, Richard Willard, said the “framers of the Fourth Amendment would roll over in their graves” if they thought police could bring media into private homes to broadcast.
Willard argued that lower courts erred when they ruled that the officers had qualified immunity from prosecution in the Wilson case. He pointed to federal law that he said limits who officers can bring with them when they serve a warrant: Individuals who directly aid in the execution of the warrant can come along, Willard said, but observers cannot.
But Justice David Souter told Willard that there is “a murky line” as to who police can bring along with them on a raid. Maryland Assistant Attorney General Lawrence Fletcher-Hill noted that there were no court cases condemning the presence of media in police raids prior to April 1992, when the Wilson raid took place.
Despite testimony that ride-alongs were not common practice in Montgomery County, Fletcher-Hill said that the deputies were “on loan” to the marshals as part of a multi-agency effort to catch fugitives. As such, he said, the deputies were subject to Marshal’s Service policy that allowed media presence.
But Richard Seligman, who represented the Wilsons in lower courts, said after Wednesday’s hearing that the high court must apply a “reasonable person” standard to the officers in the Wilson case.
“It doesn’t matter what particular officers knew, but what the reasonable officer would have been expected to know,” Seligman said.
He said it should have been “clear to a law enforcement officer trained in Fourth Amendment requirements” that the media could not come along uninvited. “This was not a tough call for the police in this case,” Seligman said.
The Wilsons’ case was one of two heard Wednesday media and privacy rights. The other case involved a CNN crew that accompanied U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents onto private property in Montana.
The high court will likely issue a ruling in the cases by the end or June or beginning of July, court staffers said.
The Wilsons were not in court Wednesday for the hearing and declined comment through their attorneys.
The Wilsons “feel like their rights to privacy were invaded at the outset,” Seligman said. “They have no interest in becoming public figures (and) speaking to press would go against their point in bringing this case in the first place.”