Wilson v. Layne
Decided on May 24, 1999; 526 US 603


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal Justice (4th Amendment), criminal procedure, search and seizure, right to privacy

 B. Legal Question Presented: 

Are a homeowner’s Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizures violated if media personnel accompany law enforcement during the execution of a search warrant in their home? Do such searches violate the homeowner’s privacy?

A. Background:

Charles and Geraldine Wilson brought this case against Harry Layne,  Deputy United States Marshall, and others, on behalf of their son, Dominic Wilson. The Wilsons believed that the manner in which federal and local authorities attempted to arrest Dominic was unconstitutional because the authorities had invited media to film and document the search of the Wilsons’ home.

The United States Marshal and local police officers who executed the arrest warrant erroneously attempted to restrain Charles Wilson, believing he was the suspect Dominic Wilson. Dominic Wilson was not present in the home at the time. A photographer and reporter from the Washington Post observed and took photos of Charles Wilson being handcuffed. 

Petitioners brought suit against the law enforcement officers for violating their Fourth Amendment right protecting against unlawful search and seizure, and also for violating their right to privacy by inviting media members to the scene. In the first suit, the District Court denied respondents’ motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.

On appeal, the Florida State Court of Appeals reversed the District Court ruling, granting the officers qualified immunity, but chose not to address the Fourth Amendment question. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the lower courts' dispute.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
ACLU attorney Richard K. Willard argued for the Petitioners. With him on the briefs were ACLU attorneys David H. Coburn, James S. Felt, Richard Seligman, Steven R. Shapiro, Arthur B. Spitzer and Dwight H. Sullivan. Assistant Attorney General of Maryland Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill argued for the respondents. With him on the briefs were Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Deputy Attorney General Carmen M. Shephard, and Assistant Attorney Generals Andrew H. Baida and John B. Howard, Jr.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
A brief of amici curiae urging affirmance was filed for ABC Inc., by Lee Levine, James E. Grossberg, Jay Ward Brown, Henry S. Hoberman, Richard M. Schmidt, Jr., Susanna M. Lowy, Harold W Fuson, Jr., Barbara Wartelle Wall, Ralph E. Goldberg, Karlene W Goller, Jerry S. Birenz, Slade R. Metcalf, Jack N. Goodman, David S. J. Brown, Rene P. Milam, George Freeman, and Jane E. Kirtley. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.

"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...

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... 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...

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... 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 on a Marshals Service ride-along policy which explicitly contemplated media entry into private homes, and the sheriff's deputies had a ridealong 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...

Held: 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."
Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 9 Con

  • Rehnquist, W.  Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Con (Wrote concurring dissenting opinion, voted with the majority)

The ACLU represented the petitioners and urged reversal; the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Florida State Supreme Court with a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.