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

Wilson v. Layne considered whether the presence of media during the execution of a search warrant violated the petitioner’s Fourth Amendment rights. Also at issue was whether the police officers had qualified immunity.

In this case, the petitioner’s son was the target of a national fugitive apprehension program in which U.S. Marshals worked alongside state and local police. Marshals invited two members of the media to accompany them as part of their ride-along policy, although the warrants did not mention media presence. While executing the warrant at the petitioner’s home, a confrontation ensued between police and petitioner, while the photographer took numerous pictures. When the police learned that the son was not present, they departed. The petitioner sued.

The standard for bringing third parties along in executing search warrants is whether their presence was in aid of the warrant’s execution. The Fourth Amendment requires that police actions in execution of a warrant be related to the objectives of the authorized intrusion (Arizona v. Hicks [1987]).

Although the Court did not dispute the respondents’ argument that bringing members of the media along served a legitimate law enforcement purpose, the standard is whether the presence of third parties furthers the purpose of the search. Because there was no such purpose, the Court held that the petitioner’s rights were violated.

The Court then turned to whether the police officers were immune from liability. Whether an official with qualified immunity may be held personally liable ‘‘turns on the objective reasonableness of the action assessed in light of the legal rules that were ‘clearly established’ at the time it was taken’’ (Anderson v. Creighton [1987]). Because there was no controlling authority on this issue and the officers reasonably relied on the Marshal’s ride-along policy, the legal rules were not ‘‘clearly established’’ and police were therefore entitled qualified immunity.

EMILY R. FROIMSON

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987)
  • Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 325 (1987)

See also Privacy; Freedom of the Press The Modern Period (1917–Present); Search (General Definition)

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