WASHINGTON — Charles and Geraldine Wilson were in bed early one morning in 1992 when they heard a commotion at the front door.
Mr. Wilson, wearing only a pair of undershorts, got up to investigate. He discovered a group of plainclothes officers entering the living room of his Rockville, Md., home - guns drawn. With them were a Washington Post reporter and a photojournalist documenting the emerging scene.
Wilson objected to the intrusion, but soon found himself face down on the floor with a knee in his back and a gun aimed at his head. That's when Mrs. Wilson emerged from the bedroom wearing only a sheer nightgown.
The officers, deputy US marshals, explained that they had an arrest warrant for the Wilsons' son, whom they considered a violent fugitive. The officers finally left after interrogating the Wilsons and searching their home.
The incident might have ended there, but the Wilsons filed suit against the officers. Although the Post never published a story or photos, the Wilsons alleged that the marshals violated their right to privacy by bringing the journalists into their home without permission. A federal judge agreed with the Wilsons, but a closely-divided appeals court reversed the judge.
On March 24, the case will be heard at the US Supreme Court, where a majority of the justices will decide whether permitting the news media to observe searches and arrests on private property is a violation of privacy.
It's a case that could dramatically curtail the scope of news gathering on law-enforcement techniques and operations, in an era of dramatic, confrontational crime coverage at many local television stations.
At issue are so-called ride-alongs in which a reporter, photographer, or television news crew accompanies law-enforcement officials as they conduct a search or make an arrest. Such coverage frequently offers a jarring look at the front lines of crime fighting.
The proliferation of television shows like "COPS," is testament to a public appetite for gritty, in-your-face scenes between police and criminal suspects. But when police arrive at the suspect's house with a signed warrant and a camera crew in tow, the question is whether the suspects still retain an expectation of privacy on their property.
High court's first opportunity
The Wilson case and a companion case involving a CNN television news crew covering the search of a Montana ranch are providing the Supreme Court with its first opportunity to decide the issue.
On one side, lawyers for homeowners and suspects are urging the court to establish a bright-line rule that media presence at arrests or searches on private property violates the Fourth Amendment's protection of privacy. On the other side, lawyers for federal agents and the media say the court should strike a balance on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind the First Amendment's right to know.
"This has the potential of being a watershed case on the issue of what are the First Amendment protections for news gathering," says Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Looming in the background here is going to be the specter of tabloid television."
In the Montana case, a CNN film crew negotiated a secret agreement to accompany federal agents investigating whether a rancher, Paul Berger, was poisoning endangered eagles threatening his livestock. The agents conducted a search of the ranch near Jordan, Mont., and allowed the CNN crew full access, including to protected grand jury material.
Members of the news crew did not identify themselves as journalists and they supplied one of the agents with a hidden microphone to secretly record the suspect's voice.
Mr. Berger, who was subsequently acquitted of killing eagles but convicted of a lesser charge, sued the agents and CNN for privacy violations. A federal judge threw out the case, but an appeals court reversed that decision.
If the Supreme Court upholds the CNN decision, analysts say, it could force news organizations to seek signed releases from suspects filmed, photographed, or observed during law-enforcement operations on private property. Some analysts say it might even force the media to ask judges for authorization. Both developments would be major constraints on reporters' ability to cover certain stories and act as an aggressive watchdog in matters of law enforcement, they say.
Right to know vs. right to privacy
Some legal analysts see the cases as a chance to bolster privacy protections and rein in a news industry that sometimes seems more interested in entertainment than public service or protecting a suspect's rights.
"The First Amendment doesn't give the press the right to break the law, to trespass," says Joshua Dratel, a New York City lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"The press is limited by the laws that limit everyone else," adds Robert Ellis Smith, editor of Privacy Journal in Providence, R.I. "The press has no special standing to violate laws."
Mr. Smith says he opposes a bright-line rule that would likely end most ride-along reporting. But he says the press must accept the risk that the media may be held accountable for violations of privacy.
"There will be occasions when ride-alongs will be appropriate," Smith says. But he adds, "I think a lot of the interest in ride-alongs is the same interest that the paparazzi have, where the primary idea is to provoke the subject into doing something that is interesting.... It is a prurient interest."