San Francisco PD Raids Journalist’s Home To Find Out Which One Of Its Cops Leaked An Autopsy Report
If someone at your police department has leaked a sensitive documents, how should you respond?
A. Conduct an internal investigation to find the source of the leak
B. Raid a journalist’s home
If you’re the San Francisco Police Department, you do both.
San Francisco police on Friday raided the home of a freelance journalist who provided three Bay Area television stations with a copy of a police report into the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi, the journalist and police officials said.
Bryan Carmody, a freelance videographer known in the industry as a stringer, told The Chronicle that San Francisco police executed a search warrant at his Outer Richmond District home and Western Addition office and seized his computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.
Whoever leaked it, did it quick. The autopsy report appeared on newcasts only hours after the public defender collapsed in his apartment. An internal investigation was opened following some public criticism of the PD’s handling of sensitive info. The leaking of this document suggested someone in the force wanted to take a shot at the public defender (and fierce critic of the PD) only hours after his passing by letting the public know about the illegal substances found in Adachi’s system. City officials recognized this and came down hard on police officials.
In response, the SFPD has apparently decided to externalize its internal investigation. While it’s possible this raid will ultimately result in the discovery of the leaker, this end does not justify the means. Law enforcement does serious damage to protected speech when it goes after journalists to out their sources. If the SFPD had restricted its investigation to its own officers, journalists wouldn’t be feeling a chill descending on their line of work.
And this all came about because the SFPD can’t take “no” for an answer. Journalists should protect their sources. If they don’t, they soon won’t have any. Courts have recognized the need to protect sources, as have a handful of journalist shield laws around the nation.
“The search warrant executed today was granted by a judge and conducted as part of a criminal investigation into the leak of the Adachi police report,” said David Stevenson, a police spokesman.
He added that the “actions are one step in the process of investigating a potential case of obstruction of justice along with the illegal distribution of a confidential police report.”
[Journalist Brian] Carmody said two inspectors with the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau “politely asked” for his source on the Adachi report two weeks ago, but he declined to reveal the person’s name.
This is a dangerous game the SFPD’s playing. It’s betting a court won’t find a stringer protected by California’s journalist shield law. There’s no case law stating affirmatively that freelance journalists are covered by this law, but the text of the law suggests stringers who sell footage, photos, and information to other journalists are probably protected.
A publisher, editor, reporter, or other person connected with or employed upon a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, or by a press association or wire service, or any person who has been so connected or employed, cannot be adjudged in contempt by a judicial, legislative, administrative body, or any other body having the power to issue subpoenas, for refusing to disclose, in any proceeding as defined in Section 901, the source of any information procured while so connected or employed for publication in a newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication, or for refusing to disclose any unpublished information obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing of information for communication to the public.
That’s not going to play well in court. The state’s shield law provides absolute immunity in criminal prosecutions and contempt hearings when the journalist is not being criminally charged. It doesn’t appear anyone’s planning on charging this journalist with a criminal act… at least not at this point. And yet, the PD decided to treat him like a criminal to search for evidence needed to close its internal investigation. There’s a good chance the SFPD misrepresented what Carmody did for a living to sneak the warrant past the judge and the state’s shield law. And with this possibly bogus warrant, it seized 15 computers, “numerous tablets,” and Carmody’s personal cellphone. If Carmody decides to sue, it’s going to be very difficult for the SFPD to defend its actions.