Is it legal for a landlord to invite media into a killer's home?
Earlier, media outlets reported from inside the suspected San Bernardino shooters' home. We ask civil rights and criminal defense attorneys about the legal, procedural and ethical consequences.
In a strange television spectacle earlier today, CNN ended up reporting on itself (and multiple other media outlets) broadcasting from inside the home of the suspected San Bernardino shooter. "Landlord invites media into killers' home," its new-sticker read as a flustered senior CNN anchor Andrea Mitchell stood with crowd of people wielding camera equipment and and digging through the alleged mass shooters' belongings.
On CNN, Anderson Cooper postulated that the police have "taken out all the items that they are interested in" (which The New York Times seems to confirm) and handed the property back to the owner. Cooper seemed quite surprised after the landlord "has invited you... and all the other media... in?.. Is that correct?" The journalist said that "they", armed with a drill and a crowbar, opened the door "that had been barricaded with a large piece of wood" and, yes, invited them inside. There are conflicting reports about the fallout.
The media swarm seemed to disturb some members of the public, while others questioned the legality of the landlord's actions and the ethics of the media in this case. We asked to civil rights lawyers, criminal defense attorneys and former DAs about the actual legal, procedural and ethical consequences of the landlord allowing media to enter the premises.
San Bernardino shooting
Law enforcement officials say that on Wednesday, December 2, 2015, husband and wife Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik walked into a conference center at Inland Regional Center and opened fire on a holiday party held by the county health department, where Mr. Farook had previously worked as a health inspector. They killed 14 people and injured 21, mostly former his co-workers. The couple fled. Four hours later they killed by police during an exchange of gunfire. The F.B.I. is now officially investigating the massacre “as an act of terrorism.”
American criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, radio talk show host and TV commentator
Under California Landlord Tenant Laws, the landlord must give three days notice before [termination of tenancy] for using the premises for illegal purposes, or from crimes involving weapons. That is to say if you are arrested or indicted or killed for a crime involving weapons, the landlord still must give three days notice before your tenancy can be terminated. So since the shooting occurred Wednesday morning, the landlord did not provide sufficient notice. I think he probably violated California’s Landlord Tenant Law. But the California Department of Consumer Affairs is unlikely to care.
The laws vary very dramatically from state to state; there’s much more protection in New York than in California. I think the landlord was not within his legal rights; nor should he have been playing with their stuff.
The thing about committing mass murder and dying in a hail of gunfire, people just don’t care much about you anymore. You actually don’t have any rights once you are dead. You don’t have a right to privacy once you are dead. Your rights terminate the moment the sheriff’s bullets penetrate your skull.
Your estate has rights one can assert. For instance, if the landlord was trying to sell off your stuff, the estate might be able to file a claim to prevent that. Once you die, you don’t have rights. It’s a funny thing, but if you think about it for a second, you’ll realize why that has to be true.
If the police or the FBI or any one of the 20 odd agencies still regard it as an active crime scene, they would have prevented access, they have the power to do that. They have the power to get a court order and make sure that’s done. If they fail to do so, the property reverts back to the landlord as of the third day’s anniversary of the shooting.
You can question the news media that pays money to pander to the lowest common denominator of prurient interest.
The landlord does not have the right to let the police in. You have a constitutionally protected right of privacy in your home when you’re a leaseholder that the landlord can’t abridge except under extraordinary circumstances. All that cool stuff ends when you die.
James W. Magee, Esq.
Lawyer at Law Offices of James W. Magee, Esq., Former DA for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office
I’ll tell you this, whoever the FBI agent is that was in charge of securing the scene is in deep shit. I mean, god only knows what was in there. There’s not much of a criminal investigation left I guess. The two people are dead, but the allegation right now is that they were connected to Islamic terrorism.
For obvious reasons, we’re interested to see what’s in the apartment. These people weren’t even [acting like] journalists, they were like entertainers going in there with cameras.
I assume the government has been in there already. Honestly, probably overall it didn’t really hurt anything, but the FBI is going to be furious. I wouldn’t want to be the FBI agent who was supposed to make sure this didn’t happen. I saw a picture of the [landlady]; she looks pretty old; I don’t think she’s going to be in any trouble.
The government would have had to go to a judge and get a search order. Two things about that though: first of all, in a case like this, any judge would have signed it, he probably would have come down himself to sign it, and two, no one’s really going to bat an eye if the government just broke in because they don’t know what’s in there, there could be other people planning; they wouldn’t even need a search warrant.
But regarding the press, legally speaking, I don’t think they can get in trouble, but it might be the FBI agent or poor local cop, that’s who they might get mad at.
It’s a huge coup for them for entertainment purposes. What good is it to the public? Nothing, it’s probably just spectacle. I don’t know what they could find. I’m not saying this is the case, but there could be a national security issue here, and it was really irresponsible for them to do that.
There might have been things in there that the government wouldn’t have wanted the public to know about, and then these buffoons go in there and make everyone’s life more difficult. God knows what the conservatives will do with this. It makes things harder on everybody.
Criminal Defense Attorney, former Assistant DA for firearms trafficking at Brooklyn District Attorney's Office
It’s a little tricky because they’re deceased. If this was a regular criminal investigation, the landlord has no right to let them into someplace that’s not a common area. Whether landlord or roommate, you also can’t let the police into someplace that somebody else has more control over. Your roommate can say “Sure, come into the living room,” but your roommate can’t allow them to search your personal bedroom. He doesn’t have the standing to give consent.
I would say the same thing about landlords, but it’s a little more confusing if [the lease-holder] is deceased. I would presume the landlord has more right to the property than anyone else does. Someone can say,“Well, they could arrest the journalist” but who would testify against them? Who would say they were trespassing and that they had no authority to be there?
Even if it’s not legally recognized that there’s a right to privacy, they were there looking for some kind of connection to terrorist activities or some explanation as to why this happened. These are the personal affects of two people who’ve done something awful of course, but there’s gotta be some private items in there that aren’t meant to be disclosed to the public. The police investigating should be required to go get a warrant or court order, but when it comes to allowing journalists in, in my purely subjective opinion, that makes me a little uncomfortable.