Monday morning could mark the end of a long road for Will Miller. The 38-year-old former deputy King County prosecutor is scheduled to return to the courthouse where he once worked—only this time he will be there as a convicted drug felon. Prosecutors hope to see Miller sentenced to as many as 10 years in prison on three counts of selling methamphetamine to an undercover cop (and one count of attempted sale).
But his case is not just about drugs or an ex-law-and-order man gone wrong. It is also shining a spotlight on cozy, and possibly unlawful, cooperation between King County cops and the news media.
As a prosecutor, Miller, who has admitted being a sometime drug addict, was known in the courthouse world for his strange and volatile behavior. Those concerns came to a head one morning in March 1998, when Miller was stopped at the courthouse security checkpoint and found to be carrying a small silver pipe, an X-Acto knife, a 10-gram scale, and a small baggie of methamphetamine. He claimed the items belonged to his roommate.
Miller immediately resigned his post as a King County prosecutor. But charges were never filed in the case. As Seattle Weekly detailed in a story that year ("My roommate did it," SW, 12/17/98), King County law enforcement officials went to some extraordinary lengths to help Miller exonerate himself, such as spending their own man-hours trying to locate the roommate who could support Miller's alibi. (The man, whom Miller described as his spouse, never came forward.) In the end, the state attorney general's office declined to file charges, saying that they couldn't overcome Miller's claim of "unwitting possession."
A few weeks later, however, Miller's former lover contacted the sheriff's office and agreed to help set up an undercover sting operation that would do in his ex-roommate. After several successful drug buys, the police were ready to make an arrest. On the night of February 16 last year, King County cops, armed with a search warrant, busted down the door of Miller's Crown Hill home with a battering ram and swept through the house, eventually finding Miller in the attic.
But the cops did not come alone. They had alerted a camera crew from KOMO-TV about the planned bust, and after meeting the news team at the Fred Meyer parking lot on NW 85th Street, sheriff's deputies led them to Miller's home. Once the cops had broken in and searched the place, they allowed the camera crew to enter the house, where they shot footage of Miller's possessions as well as Miller himself, who was bound to a chair, his face turned away. That night, KOMO broadcast its "exclusive."
Miller believes the news team was invited along in order to undo the earlier negative publicity. "They made me a media trophy," he says.
In July, a jury convicted Miller of the drug dealing charges. But after the verdict was in, Judge Ron Kessler made it known that he believed Miller's Fourth Amendment right to privacy had been violated. Says Miller: "When I was arrested I didn't give up my right to prevent trespass into my home." Now the question, as Miller goes in for sentencing, is what effect, if any, this twist will have on his fate.
King County Sheriff's spokesperson Sergeant John Urquhart says it was "not unusual" to have KOMO on hand for the bust. "It happens on a regular basis. We have an open invitation for anybody in the news media who wants to go along with us on police operations. We have nothing to hide and we want the public to know how we do business."
He emphasizes that the sheriff's office did not initiate the contact with KOMO. "My understanding is they had called up a few days before and said, 'Hey, have you got anything going on?' and we said, 'Well, yeah, we're going to be serving a search warrant.'"
Urquhart says KOMO "had gone on several other of our drug enforcement operations, prior to and subsequent to this one. Our drug enforcement unit and KOMO had a dialogue going back and forth. They've kind of established a relationship."
But that relationship may have become a little too close. In a letter written two months ago to the State Bar Association, Senior Assistant Attorney General Greg Canova, who oversaw Miller's prosecution, said he "thought it was totally inappropriate" for the KOMO cameras to have been on hand for the Miller search.
"In the hundreds of cases I have handled in my 26 years as a prosecutor at the state and county level," Canova wrote, "I have never been involved in a case or been aware of a case in this jurisdiction where the news media was notified by law enforcement prior to the execution of a search warrant and allowed to be present at the time the search warrant was executed."
Canova, who is currently running for King County Superior Court, says he made his views on the matter known to King County Sheriff Dave Reichert shortly after the arrest and "was advised that, as a matter of policy, this kind of event would not reoccur."
In fact, just weeks after Miller's arrest, the US Supreme Court deemed these sorts of media "ride-alongs" to be unconstitutional. In a unanimous May 1999 decision, stemming from a case involving US marshals and The Washington Post, the court said: "It violates the Fourth Amendment rights of homeowners for police to bring members of the media or other third parties into their home during the execution of a warrant."
In a subsequent interview with the Weekly, King County Sergeant Urquhart revised his earlier statement and now says that he doesn't know of any other "ride-alongs" since the Will Miller arrest. "When the Supreme Court ruling came down, we realized we can't do this anymore." However, Urquhart adds, the county has invited the media to cover some prostitution stings, which take place on public property.
Michael A. Nesteroff, a former KOMO-TV reporter and now an attorney at Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, points out that well before the Supreme Court ruling, lower court decisions had indicated "ride-alongs" were legally suspect, including one major 1998 case in the Ninth Circuit, which includes Washington state. "The handwriting was kind of on the wall," Nesteroff says. "I think it's fair to say that [the constitutionality issue] was unclear. But I would have expected law enforcement would be conservative on this."
Sergeant Urquhart says: "We weren't aware of any previous rulings."
The issue facing Will Miller, and Judge Kessler, is what to do now. "The judge said the Fourth Amendment has been violated," notes Peter Connick, a defense attorney who represented Miller at trial. "The question is, what is the remedy?" The judge has asked both sides to submit legal briefs on the issue and to discuss the matter at the sentencing hearing on Monday.
The Supreme Court has already indicated that police can be held liable for their actions. Such a suit could be costly for the county. And in another current "ride-along" case, the media outlet itself—CNN—is being sued.
But with respect to Will Miller's criminal conviction and sentence, the effects are uncertain, and may not exist at all. The judge already declined to "suppress" the evidence gathered in the house search. After all, says Assistant Attorney General Brian Moran, "The media didn't get us any evidence. They were just there." Miller, who is now representing himself in court, says he will ask the judge to dismiss his conviction because of "outrageous governmental conduct."
King County ♥ COPS
Just when the issue of media intrusion is being discussed in a local courtroom, the TV show that turned the "ride-along" into a cultural icon—Fox-TV's COPS—is in town cruising around with King County Sheriff's officers.
"There are three camera crews," says Sergeant Urquhart, "one at each precinct: Kenmore, Maple Valley, and Burien. They'll be here for another two or three weeks." This is the third time King County's men-in-brown have appeared on the popular series. (Seattle's police department has never agreed to participate.)
Urquhart says camera operators are forbidden to enter people's homes when the officers are serving a warrant. But the camera crew will charge in with the officers when they respond to a call, such as a burglary or a domestic disturbance. "If the people that live there say, 'No, I don't want to be photographed, I don't want them in my house,' then they leave, period," Urquhart says. But, he adds, "Because the TV show is so well known, it's usually not an issue." Before leaving, the COPS crew also seeks a signed release form from everyone whose face is caught on tape—remarkably easy to come by, according to Urquhart, who says, "When they find out it's COPS, they say, 'Hey cool, I'll sign.'"
"Real cops like me and real bad guys love that TV show," says Urquhart. "I wish I had a dollar for every time I'd gone to a house to arrest somebody or every time I served a drug search warrant and the people inside were watching COPS on TV. It's just hilarious."