High court handcuffs media on ‘ride-alongs’

Exex claim decision will have no impact on shows

While civil rights lawyers suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court’s “ride-along” decision Monday will put an end to such shows as “Cops,” execs from news-gathering operations doubted their methods would be much affected.

The high court ruled that media ride-alongs by camera crews violate a person’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy when the crews enter that person’s home in order to film or tape police activity, such as an arrest or the serving of a search warrant.

The televised scene of a handcuffed suspect sitting on a living room couch while police search the home may become a thing of the past under this ruling, legal eagles said.

The decision, in an 8-1 vote by the justices, applies to news organizations such as CNN or local news stations, as well as reality-based shows like “Cops” or the now-defunct “LAPD: Life on the Beat.”

Constitutional violation

“It is a violation of the Fourth Amendment for police to bring members of the media or other third parties into a home during the execution of a warrant,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court majority.

He noted that although police may be authorized to enter the home, it does not follow that officers are entitled to bring camera crews or reporters with them.

Police had previously been immune from litigation as an individual’s rights under such circumstances were unclear prior to the ruling.

Disbelief expressed

The ruling had been expected (Daily Variety, March 25), based on the court’s reaction to oral arguments. Many of the justices expressed disbelief at the practice of police allowing members of the media into homes to film raids or arrests.

Anticipating the outcome of the case based on the tenor of the court’s questions at that time, the LAPD immediately altered its ride-along program and began restricting media from following officers onto private property.

The policies of the CBS and NBC news divisions currently require crews to obtain consent from the property owners before entering a suspected crime scene.

Some have come to believe that ride-alongs are really “voyeurism and not journalism,” said Steve Cohen, news director for L.A.’s Chris Craft/United-owned KCOP-TV. He noted that his station’s last ride-along-related story was about 18 months ago when a crew captured a marijuana arrest.

“We don’t go in until we’re invited,” said Jose Rios, news director for Fox-owned KTTV Los Angeles, who noted that earlier legal disputes in lower courts were enough to send a warning to news departments.

Privacy rights

“You can still tell the story from outside the house. It does restrict the pictures you might get, but the issue of balancing an individual’s privacy rights is a very real one,” Rios said.

The court’s decision stemmed from a pair of cases, one involving CNN and the other the Washington Post. Reporters in both cases accompanied police on raids into homes.

John Langley, exec producer of Fox’s “Cops,” boldly predicted that the court’s decision would have no impact on his show.

“We are obligated to point out, as a so-called ride-along show, that we are unaffected by the decision because we obtain releases from everyone involved in our program,” Langley said in a prepared statement.

“Moreover, we do not, under any circumstances, violate rights of privacy whether in this context or any other context. Since ‘Cops’ is a ride-along show with police officers on the beat during the execution of their normal duties, we will continue doing business as usual.”

“Cops” crews obtain talent releases after the footage is shot, and those who do not sign have their image distorted through pixilation.

But some industry attorneys suggested the ruling portends that such a practice may be challenged and such shows will have to get signed releases before shooting the footage.

Though the ruling comes some years after the heyday of ride-along TV pioneered by “Cops,” police organizations still widely employ media ride-alongs for publicity purposes.

“They’ve always been PR vehicles for law enforcement and serve no other purpose. The court recognized that,” Doug Mirell, a First Amendment and media expert told Daily Variety. “This ruling and the recent laws against paparazzi should help ensure an individual’s privacy is better protected from unwanted intrusions.”

Many ride-along-based shows such as “LAPD” have been canceled due to low ratings, and reality producers are increasingly licensing footage directly from law enforcement agencies, like the clips seen on Fox’s “World’s Wildest Police Videos” and Paramount’s syndie “Real TV.”

Attorneys noted that the high court ruling will not have any impact on news coverage or reality-based show filming of an event that occurs in public, such as a car chase through city streets.