526 U.S. 603 (1999), 98-83, Wilson v. Layne

Docket Nº:Case No. 98-83
Citation:526 U.S. 603, 119 S.Ct. 1692, 143 L.Ed.2d 818, 67 U.S.L.W. 4322
Case Date:May 24, 1999
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 603

526 U.S. 603 (1999)

119 S.Ct. 1692, 143 L.Ed.2d 818, 67 U.S.L.W. 4322

WILSON et al.



Case No. 98-83

United States Supreme Court

May 24, 1999

Argued March 24, 1999



While executing a warrant to arrest petitioners' son in their home, respondents, deputy federal marshals and local sheriff's deputies, invited a newspaper reporter and a photographer to accompany them. The warrant made no mention of such a "media ride-along." The officers' early morning entry into the home prompted a confrontation with petitioners, and a protective sweep revealed that the son was not in the house. The reporters observed and photographed the incident but were not involved in the execution of the warrant. Their newspaper never published the photographs they took of the incident. Petitioners sued the officers in their personal capacities for money damages under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (the federal marshals), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (the sheriff's deputies), contending that the officers' actions in bringing the media to observe and record the attempted execution of the arrest warrant violated their Fourth Amendment rights. The District Court denied respondents' motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. In reversing, the Court of Appeals declined to decide whether the officers' actions violated the Fourth Amendment, but concluded that because no court had held at the time of the search that media presence during a police entry into a residence constituted such a violation, the right allegedly violated was not "clearly established" and thus respondents were entitled to qualified immunity.


A "media ride-along" in a home violates the Fourth Amendment, but because the state of the law was not clearly established at the time the entry in this case took place, respondent officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Pp. 609-618.

(a) The qualified immunity analysis is identical in suits under § 1983 and Bivens. See, e. g., Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394, n. 9. A court evaluating a qualified immunity claim must first determine whether the plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of a constitutional right, and, if so, proceed to determine whether that right was clearly established at the time of the violation. Conn v. Gabbert, ante, at 290. P. 609.

Page 604

(b) It violates the Fourth Amendment rights of homeowners for police to bring members of the media or other third parties into their home during the execution of a warrant when the presence of the third parties in the home was not in aid of the warrant's execution. The Amendment embodies centuries-old principles of respect for the privacy of the home, which apply where, as here, police enter a home under the authority of an arrest warrant in order to take into custody the suspect named in the warrant, Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 602-604. It does not necessarily follow from the fact that the officers were entitled to enter petitioners' home that they were entitled to bring a reporter and a photographer with them. The Fourth Amendment requires that police actions in execution of a warrant be related to the objectives of the authorized intrusion. See, e. g., Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 325. Certainly the presence of the reporters, who did not engage in the execution of the warrant or assist the police in their task, was not related to the objective of the authorized intrusion, the apprehension of petitioners' son. Taken in their entirety, the reasons advanced by respondents to support the reporters' presence—publicizing the government's efforts to combat crime, facilitating accurate reporting on law enforcement activities, minimizing police abuses, and protecting suspects and the officers—fall short of justifying media ride-alongs. Although the presence of third parties during the execution of a warrant may in some circumstances be constitutionally permissible, the presence of these third parties was not. Pp. 609-614.

(c) Petitioners' Fourth Amendment right was not clearly established at the time of the search. "Clearly established" for qualified immunity purposes means that the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. His very action need not previously have been held unlawful, but in the light of pre-existing law its unlawfulness must be apparent. E. g., Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640. It was not unreasonable for a police officer at the time at issue to have believed that bringing media observers along during the execution of an arrest warrant (even in a home) was lawful. First, the constitutional question presented by this case is by no means open and shut. Accurate media coverage of police activities serves an important public purpose, and it is not obvious from the Fourth Amendment's general principles that the officers' conduct in this case violated the Amendment. Second, petitioners have not cited any cases of controlling authority in their jurisdiction at the time in question which clearly established the rule on which they seek to rely, nor have they identified a consensus of cases of persuasive authority such that a reasonable officer could not have believed that his actions were lawful. Finally, the federal marshals in this case relied

Page 605

on a Marshals Service ride-along policy which explicitly contemplated media entry into private homes, and the sheriff's deputies had a ride-along program that did not expressly prohibit such entries. The state of the law was at best undeveloped at the relevant time, and the officers cannot have been expected to predict the future course of constitutional law. E. g., Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555, 561. Pp. 614-618.

141 F.3d 111, affirmed.

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and II, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Part III, in which O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 618.

Richard K. Willard argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were David H. Coburn, James S. Felt, Richard Seligman, Steven R. Shapiro, Arthur B. Spitzer, and Dwight H. Sullivan.

Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, Assistant Attorney General of Maryland, argued the cause for the state respondents. With him on the brief were J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General, Carmen M. Shepard, Deputy Attorney General, and Andrew H. Baida and John B. Howard, Jr., Assistant Attorneys General. Richard A. Cordray filed a brief for the federal respondents.[*]

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

While executing an arrest warrant in a private home, police officers invited representatives of the media to accompany them. We hold that such a "media ride-along" does violate the Fourth Amendment, but that because the state

Page 606

of the law was not clearly established at the time the search in this case took place, the officers are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity.


In early 1992, the Attorney General of the United States approved "Operation Gunsmoke," a special national fugitive apprehension program in which United States Marshals worked with state and local police to apprehend dangerous criminals. The "Operation Gunsmoke" policy statement explained that the operation was to concentrate on "armed individuals wanted on federal and/or state and local warrants for serious drug and other violent felonies." App. 15. This effective program ultimately resulted in over 3,000 arrests in 40 metropolitan areas. Brief for Federal Respondents Layne et al. 2.

One of the dangerous fugitives identified as a target of "Operation Gunsmoke" was Dominic Wilson, the son of petitioners Charles and Geraldine Wilson. Dominic Wilson had violated his probation on previous felony charges of robbery, theft, and assault with intent to rob, and the police computer listed "caution indicators" that he was likely to be armed, to resist arrest, and to "assaul[t] police." App. 40. The computer also listed his address as 909 North StoneStreet Avenue in Rockville, Maryland. Unknown to the police, this was actually the home of petitioners, Dominic Wilson's parents. Thus, in April 1992, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County issued three arrest warrants for Dominic Wilson, one for each of his probation violations. The warrants were each addressed to "any duly authorized peace officer," and commanded such officers to arrest him and bring him "immediately" before the Circuit Court to answer an indictment as to his probation violation. The warrants made no mention of media presence or assistance.[1]

Page 607

In the early morning hours of April 16, 1992, a Gunsmoke team of Deputy United States Marshals and Montgomery County Police officers assembled to execute the Dominic Wilson warrants. The team was accompanied by a reporter and a photographer from the Washington Post, who had been invited by the Marshals to accompany them on their mission as part of a Marshals Service ride-along policy.

At around 6:45 a.m., the officers, with media representatives in tow, entered the dwelling at 909 North StoneStreet Avenue in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Rockville. Petitioners Charles and Geraldine Wilson were still in bed when they heard the officers enter the home. Petitioner Charles Wilson, dressed only in a pair of briefs, ran into the living room to investigate. Discovering at least five men in street clothes with guns in his living room, he angrily demanded that they state their business, and repeatedly cursed the officers. Believing him to be an angry Dominic Wilson, the officers quickly subdued him on the...

To continue reading