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CBS Liable for Filming Search

This case has nothing to do with prison litigation. We are reporting it because it deals with the ongoing propaganda war being waged against criminal defendants and poor people. It is the first reported court decision to hold a television broadcaster liable for accompanying police agents on a search and filming it for broadcast. Anyone who has watched Cops, Hard Copy, America's Most Wanted, or any of the other "real life" cop shows has seen the degrading and propagandistic manner in which the victims of police repression are portrayed. The broadcasters and the police can be sued and held liable for such actions.

In 1992 Secret Service agents obtained a search warrant from a federal court authorizing the search of an apartment shared by Babatunde Ayeni, his wife Tawa and small son Kayode seeking evidence of a credit card fraud operation. At 6 PM on March 5, 1992, several Secret Service (SS) agents forced their way into the Ayeni residence announcing they had a warrant to conduct a search and ask questions. Only Mrs. Ayeni and her son were home at the time. At about 8:15 PM four more SS agents arrived with a film crew from the CBS News program Street Stories. The CBS film crew were never identified as CBS employees. The CBS crew followed the SS agents and taped them as they searched the apartment. They took closeup shots of the home's interior, its closets, personal letters, family photos, etc. In the apartment's foyer an SS agent was interviewed about the modus operandi of people who commit credit card frauds and the tools of their trade. During this tape sequence the SS agent implied the complicity of the other residents of the Ayeni apartment. No evidence implicating any of the Ayenis in any illegal activity was found during the search. One of the agents was filmed expressing his disappointment.

The Ayenis filed suit against the federal agents as well as CBS contending that the search and its filming violated their fourth amendment rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. In his opinion Judge Weinstein agreed with the Ayeni's. Readers will note this is the first published ruling on the issue of private parties filming searches by police officials. The defendants sought qualified immunity, which the court denied.

Under the doctrine of qualified immunity government agents are entitled to be free from liability for money damages even if they violate constitutional rights as long as the right is not "well established" so that a person of reasonable intelligence would know that the right violated was recognized. In this case the court held that any reasonable police agent would have known that it is unconstitutional to have private citizens accompany them on a search to film and broadcast the search. The court relied on 18 U.S.C. § 3105 which requires that search warrants be served by an official authorized to serve the warrant and by no other person unless their assistance is required in conducting the search. Thus, the SS agents should have known that having a film crew taping their activities was illegal. Courts have previously held that taking photos is a "seizure" within the meaning of the fourth amendment. CBS also claimed qualified immunity from suit. The court notes that private entities are not entitled to qualified immunity from suit, it only applies to government actors.

The court used harsh language in condemning the actions by the SS and CBS. "The search warrant was issued to Agent Mottola and other agents of the United States Secret Service for precise and limited purposes. It authorized their entry into the Ayeni's home only to search for items related to credit card fraud. Agent Mottola's act of facilitating the CBS camera crew's entry into the apartment and its filming of the search exceeded the scope of the warrant. It was allegedly in clear violation of then well established fourth amendment is the equivalent of a rogue policeman using his official position to break into a home in order to steal objects for his own profit or that of another."

For immunity purposes it would be "...grossly unreasonable for a government agent not to have known that the presence of private persons he invited in so that they could titillate and entertain others was beyond the scope of what was lawfully authorized by the warrant..."

"CBS had no greater right than that of a thief to be in the home, to `capture' the scene of the search on film and to remove the photographic record. The images, though created by the camera, are a part of the household; they could not be removed without permission or official right... The television tape was a seizure of private property, information, for non-governmental purposes."

It is entirely possible that litigation by the victims of this type of police and media activity may be able to halt the spread of "police TV." Findings of liability against both police and the broadcaster will see to it that police activity is not broadcast to "entertain and titillate." See: Ayeni v. CBS Inc., 848 F. Supp 362 (ED NY. 1994).

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Related legal case

Ayeni v. CBS Inc.


CV 93-0957


848 F. Supp. 362; 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3023; 22 Media L. Rep. 1466

March 17, 1994, Decided

COUNSEL: [**1] For the Plaintiff: Rossbacher & Associates, Los Angeles, CA, by Henry H. Rossbacher, Esq. Harry C. Batchelder, Esq., New York, NY.

For the Defendants CBS Inc. and Meade R. Jorgensen: Douglas P. Jacobs, Esq., Madeleine Schachter, Esq., New York, NY. For the Defendant James Mottola: Frank W. Hunger, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division. Helene M. Goldberg, Esq., Director, Torts Branch, Civil Division, Stephen F. McGraw, Esq., Trial Attorney, Torts Branch, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC.

JUDGES: Weinstein




Weinstein, J:

This case raises grave issues of the right to privacy in the home from the intruding eye and ear of a private broadcaster's television camera when: 1) entry of the television crew was, compelled by government officials without consent of the householder; 2) the officials had themselves obtained consentless entry, ostensibly by means of a search warrant; 3) the officials were not being aided in their search by the television crew; 4) the television crew was present only for proprietary reasons, -- i.e. potential profit to the television broadcaster; and 5) the television crew took from the home for [**2] the purpose of broadcasting them to the world at large, pictures of intimate secrets of the household, including sequences of a cowering mother and child resisting the videotaping.

The government and the broadcaster do not now contest the claim that serious psychic harm was suffered by the mother and child. Rather, they argue that this action against united States Treasury Agent, James Mottola, who allegedly arranged for the CBS crew's entry; CBS Inc., the broadcaster; and Meade R. Jorgensen, the CBS producer in charge of the crew, must be dismissed on the ground that they are immune from suit.

For the reasons indicated below this motion was denied: A prima facie gross violation of plaintiffs' clear constitutional rights has been pleaded against the government official. At the very least, plaintiffs are entitled to discovery in order to determine whether there was any justification for this intrusion of CBS into their home with the aid of a government official. The motion of CBS must be denied for this reason and, in addition, because a private broadcaster cannot cloak itself in immunity of a government official under the facts of this case.

I. Facts

The complaint alleges:

On [**3] March 5, 1992, Agent Mottola obtained a search warrant based upon information provided by a confidential informant regarding Mr. Babatunde Ayeni's involvement in a credit card fraud operation. He is plaintiff Tawa Ayeni's husband and plaintiff Kayode Ayeni's father. The warrant authorized Agent Mottola and other government agents to enter the plaintiffs' apartment to search for:

quantities of fraudulently obtained credit cards, lists' of names and account numbers for such credit cards, credit card receipts, credit card applications, false identification documents, cash, correspondence, checkbooks, bank records, and U.S. Postal Service change of address form.

(Am. Compl. P. 24.)

Neither Mrs. Ayeni nor Kayode was under investigation for any illegal activity. At approximately 6:00 p.m. on March 5, 1992, six agents (four or five secret service agents and one or two postal inspectors) arrived at the Ayenis' three bedroom residence. Mrs. Ayeni and her son were home alone. The agents announced that they were police conducting an investigation and wanted to ask questions. When Mrs. Ayeni, clothed only in a dressing gown, cracked opened the door, the agents pushed into the apartment. [**4]

At approximately 8:15 p.m., Agent Mottola entered the apartment with three additional agents and a CBS news crew, including Meade R. Jorgensen, a camera operator, and a sound technician. Jorgensen is employed [*365] by CBS News as a producer of "Street Stories," a weekly television news magazine. The crew was never identified as CBS employees. "Mrs. Ayeni believed, that the CBS camera crew and defendant Jorgensen were part of the team executing the warrant." (Am. Compl. P. 29.)

Mrs. Ayeni objected to the presence of the camera. She asked why the men were videotaping herself and her son. Kayode sat behind his mother on the couch crying. Mrs. Ayeni repeatedly requested that her picture not be taken and attempted to cover her face and that of the boy.

The CBS crew followed and taped the agents as they searched the apartment and the Ayeni's belongings. They took close-up pictures of the interiors of closets, personal letters, family pictures, and even of a homey maxim on the wall. (Am. Compl. P. 35 and videotape.) Throughout the search, Jorgensen questioned an agent wearing a microphone. In the foyer of the Ayeni apartment, the CBS crew interviewed this agent to determine the modus operandi [**5] of people who commit credit card fraud and the tools of their trade. During this sequence of the tape, the agent "implied the complicity of other residents of the Ayeni apartment." (Am. Compl. P. 37.)

While CBS taped her, the agents questioned Mrs. Ayeni regarding her husband's whereabouts and objects in the apartment. The only material seized from the apartment was a family photograph of the Ayenis, also taped by CBS.

After about 20 minutes the CBS crew left the premises with several agents. It videotaped one of the agents expressing disappointment that no evidence of credit card fraud had been in found.

Plaintiffs contend that CBS and Jorgensen had an "agreement" with the Secret Service to enter the apartment. (Am. Compl. P. 30.) They assert that "defendants Jorgensen and CBS, individually and through their agents, servants and employees, were acting with the implied permission and consent of the United States Secret Service, Department of the Treasury and United, States Postal Service." (Am. Compl. P. 22.) The complaint states:

CBS also claims to have accompanied the Secret Service furthering the execution of the search in plaintiffs' apartment under the imprimatur of the official [**6] warrant and through the auspices of its "confidential informant," one of the Unknown Special Agents who participated in the search of the Ayeni apartment.

(Am. Compl. P. 31.)

II. Law

A. Qualified Immunity of Agent Mottola.

Government officials performing a discretionary function are immune from liability from civil damages unless their conduct violates "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person should have known," Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396, 102 S. Ct. 2727 (1982), or if it was objectively reasonable for the officials to believe that their acts did not violate those clearly established rights. Finnegan v. Fountain, 915 F.2d 817, 823 (2d Cir. 1990).

Inquiry into whether a right is clearly established cannot stop at a generalized level of fact. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 97 L. Ed. 2d 523, 107 S. Ct. 3034 (1987). An evaluation of the state of the law at the time of the official action in light of the particular factual circumstances of the case is required. Id. "The 'contours' of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand [**7] that what he is doing violates that right. . . . In light of the preexisting law the unlawfulness must be apparent." Id.

To determine whether a right was clearly established at the time defendant Mottola acted, the court must consider:

1) whether the right in question as defined with "reasonable specificity"; 2) whether the decisional law of the Supreme Court and the applicable circuit court support the existence of the right in question; and 3) whether under preexisting law a reasonable defendant official would have understood that his or her acts were unlawful.

Soares v. Connecticut, 8 F.3d 917, 922 (2d Cir. 1993).

[*366] To determine whether an agent is immune from suit, the court must determine whether, at the time of the search, it was clearly established that his actions constituted an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, [**8] and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Fourth Amendment protects private citizens' right to be free from unreasonable intrusions by government officials into areas where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 353, 19 L. Ed. 2d 576, 88 S. Ct. 507 (1967). The home is the clearest example of such an area. The amendment has been interpreted broadly to place a number of restrictions on the state's ability to enter the home. United States v. Sanusi, 813 F. Supp. 149, 156-59 (E.D.N.Y. 1992). Protections of the Constitution not only guarantee that the government shall not intrude into the privacy of a home without good cause, Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204, 212-16, 68 L. Ed. 2d 38, 101 S. Ct. 1642 (1981); Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 590, 63 L. Ed. 2d 639, 100 S. Ct. 1371 (1980), but it also ensures that when the government does enter that the interruption of privacy is minimized. Marron v. United States, 275 U.S. 192, 195, 72 L. Ed. 231, 48 S. Ct. 74 (1927); Dale v. Bartels, 732 F.2d 278, 284-85 (2d Cir. 1984).

The [**9] search must be closely tailored to the purpose of the warrant. For example, it may not be unreasonably destructive of property. See, e.g., United States v. Becker, 929 F.2d 442, 446 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 116 L. Ed. 2d 145, 112 S. Ct. 183 (1991); Tarpley v. Greene, 221 U.S. App. D.C. 227, 684 F.2d 1, 9 (D.C. Cir. 1982). Agents may only search in areas that could reasonably contain the items specified in the warrant. See, e.g., United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 72 L. Ed. 2d 572, 102 S. Ct. 2157 (1982). Those searching may not remain on the premises for an unreasonable length of time after the search is complete. See, e.g., United States v. Corrado, 803 F. Supp. 1280, 1285 (M.D. Tenn. 1992). See also 2 Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure § 4.10(d) (2d ed. 1987). Limitations on the scope of the intrusion are essential because of the great power wielded by government agents who enter a home with a warrant.

Where private citizens trespass and invade an individual's right to privacy, the individual has practical remedies such as locking the door or calling the police. If an intruder enters without [**10] permission intending to remove something without the right to do so, he commits a tortious trespass, see N.Y. Penal Law § 140.05, and criminal burglary. See N.Y. Penal Law § 140.20. By contrast, an official with a claim of a warrant authorized search cannot be resisted by the householder.

One who demands admission under a claim of federal authority stands in a far different position. The mere invocation of federal power by a federal law enforcement officer will normally render any attempt to resist unlawful entry or arrest by resort to the local police; and a claim of authority to enter is likely to unlock the door as well.

Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 394, 29 L. Ed. 2d 619, 91 S. Ct. 1999 (1971).

No case law has been cited specifically holding that an agent who allows a private citizen into a home to permit that person to photograph for non-governmental purposes during the execution of a search warrant is in violation of the Constitution. Cf. Bills v. Aseltine, 958 F.2d 697, 705 (6th Cir. 1992) (whether allowing a private person not assisting with search to photograph premises was an unreasonable [**11] search question); Smith v. Fairman, 98 F.R.D. 445 (C.D. Ill. 1982) (photographing by press of prisoner in cell without permission is a violation); but cf. Fullman v. Graddick, 739 F.2d 553, 560, (11th Cir. 1984) ("search of plaintiff's premises which was filmed and later published by the [*367] local media," but no indication that the official admitted the media and issue of photographing not discussed). In a case such as the instant one involving fundamental constitutional principles, the law does not require that the court "point to precedent which is factually on all-fours with the case at bar." Jefferson v. Ysleta Indep. School Dist., 817 F.2d 303, 305 (5th Cir. 1987). Rather, "it suffices that the [agent] be aware of general well-developed legal principles." Id.

It is well established by statute that a person not specifically authorized by a search warrant may not participate in a search unless he is aiding the officer authorized by the warrant. 18 U.S.C. § 3105. See, e.g., Bills v. Aseltine, 958 F.2d at 706 (security guard [**12] not aiding in the search was not lawfully on premises); United States v. Clouston, 623 F.2d 485, 486-87 (6th Cir. 1980) (telephone company employee can assist in search); In re Southeastern Equipment Co. Search Warrant, 746 F. Supp. 1563, 1577 (S.D Ga. 1990) (Customs Agent has the right to ask Department of Defense investigator to assist in search); United States v. Gambino, 734 F. Supp. 1084, 1091 (S.D.N.Y. 1990) (confidential informant may assist in search); United States v. Schwimmer, 692 F. Supp. 119, 126-27 (E.D.N.Y. 1988) (computer expert may assist in search).

Section 3105 of Title 18 was enacted as a codification of the Fourth Amendment requirements for lawful searches and seizures. The wording was used in earlier statutes governing search warrants. See The National Prohibition Act, Title II, § 2, 41 Stat. 305, 308 (1919); Espionage Act, Title XI, § 7, 40 Stat. 217, 229 (1917).

Congress has the power and the responsibility to interpret the Constitution in legislating. See Laurence H. Tribe, American Constitutional Law, § 5-1 (2d ed. 1988). [**13] We can assume that its statutes effectuating or executing constitutional mandates were adopted with this obligation in mind. Statutes as well as case law can be used to determine whether a constitutional right is clearly established.

Taking photographs is a "seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. See United States v. Villegas, 899 F.2d 1324 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 991, 112 L. Ed. 2d 545, 111 S. Ct. 535 (1990) (taking photographs is a seizure of an intangible similar to tapping a telephone line in that they are both seizures of information). In some circumstances courts have held that seizures of information, though not specifically delineated in a warrant, are constitutional under the "plain view" doctrine. See Bills v. Aseltine, 958 F.2d at 707 (photographs of areas in "plain view" during search are within scope of warrant); United States v. Espinoza, 641 F.2d 153, 166 (4th Cir.) (same), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 841, 70 L. Ed. 2d 125, 102 S. Ct. 153 (1981) (same). But the "plain view" doctrine requires that the person viewing the premises be there lawfully. Bills v. Aseltine, 958 F.2d at 707. [**14]

B. Qualified Immunity of CBS and Jorgensen.

Both CBS and Jorgensen claim qualified immunity. Their argument is that, if they were acting with the permission of government agents, as alleged in the complaint, they should be entitled to the qualified immunity enjoyed by government officials.

The Supreme Court made it clear in Wyatt v. Cole, 112 S. Ct. 1827, 118 L. Ed. 2d 504 (1992) that "the qualified immunity recognized in Harlow acts to safeguard the government, and thereby to protect the public at large, not to benefit its agents." Id. at 1833.

III. Application Of Law To Facts

The search warrant was issued to Agent Mottola and other agents of the United States Secret Service for precise and limited [*368] purposes. It authorized their entry into the Ayenis' home only to search for items related to credit card fraud. Agent Mottola's act of allowing the CBS camera crew to enter the apartment and film the search far exceeded the scope of the warrant. It was in clear violation of then well established Fourth Amendment principles. For this purpose, it is the equivalent of a rogue policeman using his official position to break into a home [**15] in order to steal objects for his own profit or that of another.

As a Secret Service Agent, Agent Mottola was authorized by law to execute search warrants. 18 U.S.C. § 3056(c)(1)(A). His power is limited by restrictions established by Congress and by the Constitution. The action of Agent Mottola is so far from acceptable constitutional behavior that no precedent was needed to alert him to the fact that his egregious behavior in the execution of a warrant for the benefit of private persons violated the Constitution he was sworn to uphold.

The video pictures taken by the camera crew was a seizure under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The complaint does not allege that the CBS crew was aiding the agents in any way. It alleges that the news crew was filming for their own newsgathering purposes, not as part of the authorized search. If this is so, the camera crew was in the Ayeni home unlawfully, in contravention of section 3105 of Title 18 and the Constitution, and, therefore, the filming was a seizure beyond the scope of, the warrant. It would be grossly unreasonable for a government agent not to have known that the presence of private persons [**16] he invited in, so that they could titillate and entertain others was beyond the scope of what was lawfully authorized by the warrant.

CBS had no greater right than that of a thief to be in the home, to take pictures and to remove the photographic record. CBS claims no First Amendment right to be present.

The images, though created by the camera, are a part of the household; they cannot be removed without permission or official right. The television tape was a seizure of information for non-governmental purposes.

Agent Mottola's act was in such clear contradiction of Fourth Amendment principles that it was not reasonable for him to believe that his conduct was constitutional. Based on the facts presently before the court, the defense of qualified immunity is not available to shield him from liability for his actions.

The plaintiffs also allege Fifth Amendment violations arising out of the same set of facts. Because the case must go forward on the Fourth Amendment issue, Agent Mottola's claim of immunity from the Fifth Amendment claims is denied with leave to renew after further discovery.

CBS, as a private corporation, and Jorgensen, as a private individual, are not entitled to qualified [**17] immunity. Even were they entitled to the same defense as a government official, as already noted, the complaint alleges a violation of a then clearly established constitutional right which precludes a grant of qualified immunity to the official.

IV. Conclusion

The motion to dismiss was properly denied. Discovery on the immunity issue must be permitted under the control of the magistrate judge. Upon completion of discovery defendants may renew their motion to dismiss and the parties may move for summary judgment.

Jack B. Weinstein

United States District Judge

Dated: Brooklyn, New York

March 17, 1994