ACLU Urges High Court to Protect 4th Amendment Rights in Press "Ride-Alongs"

March 23, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, March 23, 1999

WASHINGTON — The Fourth Amendment does not allow police to bring members of the press into a private home uninvited, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union will argue tomorrow before the United States Supreme Court.

At issue in Wilson v. Layne, filed by the ACLU of the National Capital Area, the ACLU of Maryland and the national ACLU, is whether law enforcement officers wanting publicity for their efforts may have turned a legal search into an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, and whether the police are entitled to immunity from the resulting lawsuit.

In the early morning hours of April 1992, Charles Wilson and his family were awakened by plainclothes members of the U.S. Marshals Service and the local sheriff’s department, who burst in with guns drawn, searching for Wilson’s son. Accompanying the officers were a reporter and a photographer from The Washington Post.

Mr. Wilson, clad only in his underwear, was forced to the floor by the police, who then allowed the reporters to take photographs of himself and his wife, wearing only a thin nightgown. The Wilsons were not permitted to cover themselves or change their clothes. Wilson’s son did not live with the family and in fact was not at the house that day.

In legal papers filed with the Court, the ACLU said that the Fourth Amendment provides that the warrant “must state with ‘particularity’ the places and things to be searched,” and that it “provides only a limited privilege for those whose entry into the home is necessary to accomplish the purposes of the warrant.”

Clearly, the ACLU said, the presence of the media was unrelated to any legitimate law enforcement purpose, and thus violated the Fourth Amendment. “On the facts of this case, moreover,” the ACLU said, “the unlawfulness of [the officers’] conduct is made even more apparent by the humiliating circumstances under which the Wilsons were observed and photographed.”

“The officers had no legal authority to invite the press into the Wilson’s home and the press has no more right to enter a private house than any other private person,” said Richard Seligman, an ACLU cooperating attorney who represented the Wilsons in federal district court and before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case is Wilson v. Layne, No. 98-83. Richard K. Willard of Washington, D.C. law firm Steptoe & Johnson will appear before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Wilsons.

The ACLU is not involved in a similar case, Cable News Network. Inc. v. Berger, No. 97-1927 which is also being argued tomorrow. The plaintiffs in that case sued the news media as well as the police.

The ACLU’s brief in the case can be found at:

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