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Reporters don't have right to ride with police

The story of the "ride-along" cases before the Supreme Court can be summarized in a few words: We of the press lost, boo-hoo, but the Constitution won. It was a good decision.

Underlying the high court's opinion of May 24 was a familiar practice in the world of law enforcement. Police want favorable publicity. Reporters want a good story. Toward that mutually agreeable end, reporters since time immemorial have arranged to ride along with the cops on newsworthy raids.That was the situation on April 16, 1992, when a team of federal marshals and local officers descended upon the home of Charles and Geraldine Wilson in Rockville, Md. The officers were engaged in "Operation Gunsmoke," a nationwide search for certain dangerous fugitives. They had a warrant for the arrest of the Wilsons' 27-year-old son, Dominic, who was wanted on charges of violating his probation.

In an effort to get coverage in The Washington Post, the officers invited reporter Paul Valentine and photographer Margaret Thomas to ride along. At 6:45 a.m. they all wound up in the Wilsons' living room, the cops with guns drawn, the Wilsons in nightclothes, the reporter taking notes and the photographer taking pictures.

Dominic wasn't home. He hadn't been home in two weeks. The Post never ran the photos. The Wilsons, justifiably outraged, sued the cops for bringing the press into their home. The officers had a warrant, but the media had none. The Wilsons sought money damages, but the lower courts absolved the police.

The Wilsons took their case to the Supreme Court, where it was argued on March 24. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for a unanimous court on the key question: Reporters have no right to enter a private home as ride-along guests of the cops. The Wilsons had a Fourth Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable searches.

That Fourth Amendment right dates historically from 1604, when an English court ruled that "the house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress." The principle became embedded in the Bill of Rights in 1791. Members of the press have certain privileges, but when our First Amendment rights as reporters run head-on into the rights of a homeowner under the Fourth Amendment, we will lose every time. We ought to lose every time.

During oral argument, counsel for the officers tried vainly to defend the ride-along practice. The public is well served, said attorney Richard A. Cordray, when the work of police officers is accurately reported. The presence of the press is a deterrent to abuse of power. The cops are not likely to use unnecessary force when a camera is looking on.

Justice David Souter scoffed at these arguments. "It sounds like fluff," he said. In this derisive view Souter was quite wrong. There may be an element of pure public relations in a typical ride-along, but the practice has helped to inform the public. The privilege has not been abused.

Rehnquist agreed in his opinion for the court that media ride-alongs "may further the law enforcement objectives of the police in a general sense." Accurate media coverage of police activities "serves an important public purpose." He quoted approvingly from a 1975 case: "In a society in which each individual has but limited time and resources with which to observe at first hand the operations of his government, he relies necessarily upon the press to bring to him in convenient form the facts of those operations."

Rehnquist continued: "No one could gainsay the truth of those observations, or the importance of the First Amendment in protecting press freedom from abridgement by the government. But the Fourth Amendment also protects a very important rightÉ"

The chief justice went out of his way to emphasize the 17th-century concept of home and castle. It is the presence of reporters "inside a home" that matters. The Fourth Amendment is violated when police bring members of the media or other third parties "into a home" during the execution of a warrant. We ink-stained wretches of the press may watch from the darkness outside, but that's it.

In a second part of the opinion, the Supremes agreed 8-1 that the homeowner's rights had not been clearly established at the time of the incident in 1992. The officers therefore were entitled to "qualified immunity" from money damages. After all, federal marshals were acting under a formal policy that positively encouraged them to invite reporters to ride along.

I applaud the high court's opinion, but the applause is tinged with regret. The ride-along practice may have been unconstitutional, but ah, it was fun while it lasted.

Universal Press Syndicate