Fourth Circuit Reverses Food Lion Fraud Verdict Against ABC News; $5 Million Jury Award Dwindles to $2

August 18, 1999 Legal News

On October 20, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued its long-awaited decision in Food Lion v. Capital Cities/ABC, et al. By a 2-1 vote the three-judge panel threw out a jury’s award of compensatory and punitive damages against ABC News, ruling that two ABC News producers who conducted a “hidden camera” investigation of Food Lion stores in North Carolina and South Carolina in 1992 did not commit fraud when they got jobs by fabricating portions of their employment histories and supplying fictitious references. The panel unanimously agreed that the First Amendment barred Food Lion from recovering damages allegedly arising out of the ensuing “PrimeTime Live” broadcast, because Food Lion did not assert a libel claim; that the North Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act does not apply to newsgathering; and that the ABC producers did commit the torts of trespass and “breach of duty of loyalty,” for which the jury awarded Food Lion a total of $2 in damages.

Everett, Gaskins, Hancock and Stevens has been North Carolina counsel to ABC News in the Food Lion case.

Supreme Court Says: Reporter Ride-Along into Home,
Fourth Amendment Violation

What The Cases Say

On May 24 the Supreme Court of the United States handed down two unanimous opinions curtailing the media’s rights to accompany the police into private homes in connection with arrests and searches. In Wilson v. Layne and Hanlon v. Berger,  the Court unanimously agreed that allowing reporters to enter a private residence in connection with the execution of an arrest or search warrant constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure, and thus violates the Fourth Amendment.

In Wilson v. Layne, a team of U.S. Marshals and Montgomery County, MD, police officers permitted a Washington Post reporter and photographer to follow them into a home while they attempted to serve an arrest warrant. Because the media representatives did not assist in carrying out the warrant, the Court held that their presence exceeded the scope of the warrant and was therefore unconstitutional. The police argued that the media’s presence improved the quality of law enforcement by promoting crime-fighting efforts and heightening the safety of the suspects and officers. Though it acknowledged the importance of these goals, the Court found that these reasons did not justify an infringement on Fourth Amendment rights.

Citing English law dating back to 1604, Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion in Wilson recognized the sanctity of the home and found that the media’s right to gather the news does not extend to members of the press entering private homes uninvited. He noted that the Fourth Amendment requires that police actions in execution of a warrant be related to the objectives of the authorized intrusion and found that “certainly the presence of reporters inside the home was not related to the objectives of the authorized intrusion.”

It may well be that media ride-alongs further the law enforcement objectives of the police in a general sense, but that is not the same as furthering the purposes of the search. Were such generalized “”law enforcement objectives”” themselves sufficient to trump the Fourth Amendment, the protections guaranteed by that Amendment’’s text would be significantly watered down.

The Court repeated the principle that “in a society in which each individual has but limited time and resources with which to observe at first hand the operations of his government, he relies necessarily upon the press to bring to him in convenient form the facts of those operations.” Nonetheless, the Court wrote that the Fourth Amendment also protects a very important right, and “it is in terms of that right that the media ride-alongs must be judged.”

The Court found that “Surely the possibility of good public relations for the police is simply not enough, standing alone, to justify the ride-along intrusion into a private home. And even the need for accurate reporting on police issues in general bears no direct relation to the constitutional justification for the police intrusion into a home in order to execute a felony arrest warrant.”

Despite this ruling, the police officers who had invited the Post reporters to accompany them were granted qualified immunity, because the legal principles governing “ride-alongs” had not been expressly resolved when the intrusion occurred.

The Court applied the Wilson reasoning in Hanlon v. Berger and found that the Fourth Amendment was violated when members of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service allowed a CNN reporting crew to accompany them as they searched a Montana ranch.

Both Wilson and Hanlon addressed only the constitutional issues raised by the media representatives having accompanied the police onto private premises. Neither opinion speaks to issues raised by the publication of information gathered by the reporters while they were on the premises.

What the Cases Don’t Say

The Supreme Court decisions did not “ban reporters from taking pictures of suspects being arrested” or prohibit “ride-alongs” outright. Reporters may still ride with police in their cars and photograph what can be seen from streets, sidewalks and other public places. However, underWilson v. Layne, it would be a Fourth Amendment violation for the media to accompany the police into a home, office, hospital room or other private place.

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