Supreme Court casts critical eye at media ride-alongs with police

Thursday, March 25, 1999

The Supreme Court appeared sharply critical yesterday of the police practice of allowing the news media to accompany officers onto private property to execute a search or arrest warrant.

During oral arguments in cases involving two so-called “ride-alongs,” most justices appeared offended at the intrusion into personal privacy that they represent.

“This was an amazing invasion,” said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, commenting on one of the cases, Wilson v. Layne, which involved a 1992 early-morning raid on a Maryland home with a Washington Post photographer on hand. “There is a very weighty interest on the part of homeowners to have privacy in their home.”

The other case, Hanlon v. Berger, involves a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raid on a Montana ranch, which was accompanied by CNN cameras and microphones. The targets of both searches claimed the police invitations to the media violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable police searches. News media organizations, while not directly involved in the dispute, are closely watching the cases for the impact they may have on media access to police activities.

Justice David Souter also was hostile toward ride-alongs, dismissing the motivation for such police-media collaboration as “fluff.” Justice Antonin Scalia piled on as well, doubting there was any legitimate reason for ride-alongs “besides P.R.”

Media advocates came away thinking that the days of freewheeling ride-alongs soon will be over.

“It effectively means we’re not going inside people’s houses along with police,” said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “This was not a happy day.”

Even Richard Cordray, the lawyer who argued in favor of the ride-alongs before the court, was willing to concede that he would be happy with a Supreme Court ruling that kept the media outside private homes or their immediate surroundings — known legally as the curtilage.

“His argument shows how the government just cannot be relied on to argue the media’s case,” Kirtley said.

Cordray’s argument that ride-alongs serve a positive law enforcement purpose — deterring crime and building public confidence — seemed not to win much support.

Only Chief Justice William Rehnquist offered comments that seemed to support giving police discretion to invite the news media along. He noted, for example, that it is “common” for police to bring along other civilians along on raids, such as the victim of a robbery who might be able to identify a stolen item.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also posited that some law schools have programs in which law students accompany police as they execute search warrants. Lawyer Richard Willard, arguing for the targets of the Maryland search, said law students — as well as media photographers — should not be permitted on private premises, but that crime victims or others like translators or prosecutors could be, because they facilitate the police search.

Henry Rossbacher, lawyer for the Montana ranchers, said that allowing the media to enter private property during a raid should never be permitted. The ride-alongs “violate core values” of privacy, he told the justices.

A decision in the cases could come anytime before the end of the term in June or July.