A Chicago federal judge has ruled that a reality television show may have acted “under color of law” when it filmed the arrest of a woman who now claims that she was detained to create a camera opportunity for a program featuring female police officers.
The woman brought a section 1983 civil rights claim against The Biography Channel, A&E Television Networks LLC and the Grief Company in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that a male police officer came to her suburban home ostensibly to arrest her for failing to appear at a traffic court hearing. Instead, she alleges, he held the woman until a female officer and camera crew arrived. The arrest, captured on film, later aired on The Biography Channel as part of a program titled, “Female Forces.” During the arrest, the plaintiff allegedly was searched and handcuffed. She claims she never consented to be filmed or to have her image used.
The court ruled that the “symbiotic relationship” between the media defendants and the suburban city’s police department, which had a formal contract memorializing this relationship, placed the media defendants “in the crosshairs of the Fourth Amendment.” The court then found that the allegations in the complaint were enough to support a claim that the media defendants may have violated the Fourth Amendment through their involvement in a search that served “no legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
In reaching its ruling, the court relied on two 1999 U.S. Supreme Court cases finding that the Fourth Amendment is violated when media involvement in an arrest or search serves no legitimate law enforcement purpose. Hanlon v. Berger and Wilson v. Layne were decided on the same day in 1999. In each case the Supreme Court held that bringing the media to record the execution of a warrant in an individual’s home violates that individual’s right of residential privacy where the media was not there to assist the officers or to facilitate execution of the warrant. The Supreme Court rejected the notion that generalized benefit to law enforcement is sufficient to trump the Fourth Amendment.
In 2000, the Second Circuit, in Lauro v. Charles, went a step further, finding that media involvement in could form the basis of a Fourth Amendment violation even where the police action is outside of a suspect’s home and privacy interests are diminished. There, a staged “perp walk,” arranged by officers after the suspect had already been brought to the police station solely for the benefit of the media, was found to violate the Fourth Amendment. The Second Circuit found that placing the suspect in a squad car, driving him around the block and allowing the media to capture him being brought to the station served no legitimate law enforcement purpose and only exacerbated the seizure of the suspect in an unreasonable manner.
In the Chicago case, the federal judge focused on the central question posed in Lauro, whether what occurred in the case constituted an “improper exacerbation of an otherwise lawful seizure.” He found that allegations that the suspect was restrained prior to arrest solely to meet the objectives of the media was sufficient to state a Fourth Amendment claim. Unlike the earlier cases, however, here, members of the media were named as defendants in the case. Calling the “symbiotic relationship” between the media defendants and the police officers in this case “a highly disturbing outgrowth of collaborative arrangement,” the Chicago court ruled that the media defendants in this case could be found to have acted under color of law. The motion to dismiss the Fourth Amendment claims against the media defendants was, therefore, denied.