Lawyers and free speech advocates are wrangling over whether San Francisco police were right to raid a journalist’s home in May — the latest jolt from a leaked report on the February death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
The incident has raised concerns that city officials have lost sight of journalists’ rights in their haste to solve a case that embarrassed the city. Some observers wondered whether the judges who signed the warrant were aware the search targeted a journalist.
“Somebody screwed up royally,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael, who called the raid outrageous.
At the heart of the dispute is a report that included photographs and details about what happened at the Telegraph Hill apartment where Adachi lost consciousness on Feb. 22 after spending the day with a female companion.
The Police Department drew sharp reprimands from city politicians after the report showed up on television newscasts and in print only hours after Adachi, 59, collapsed and later died. It rattled City Hall, creating a new drama that overtook the news of Adachi’s death. The public defender was a key figure for local progressives but also a vocal critic of the police, leading some to say the report’s unauthorized release was politically motivated.
Police immediately started a probe, which led investigators to freelance videographer Bryan Carmody, who says he received the report on Adachi’s death from an unidentified source inside the Police Department. He sold it to three television news stations, but wouldn’t identify them.
Officers showed up at the door of his Outer Richmond District home two weeks ago and “politely asked me to tell them who my source was. I declined to do that,” Carmody said.
On Friday morning, at least 10 police officers and two federal agents used a sledgehammer to enter Carmody’s home. They also searched his vehicles and his office in the Western Addition, taking check stubs, CDs, USB drives, computers, cell phones, notebooks and the original leaked police report. Carmody said he was handcuffed and detained for seven hours as officers grilled him, asking for passwords to his cell phones and computers, the name of his source, and whether the source had been compensated.
“I’m positively clear on that — literally not a penny, not even a cup of coffee,” Carmody said.
A copy of the warrant obtained by The Chronicle shows it was signed by two Superior Court judges — Victor Hwang and Gail Dekreon — but does not list a probable cause for the search.
In a statement released Friday, David Stevenson, a Police Department spokesman, characterized the searches as “one step in the process of investigating a potential case of obstruction of justice, along with the illegal distribution of a confidential police report.”
Debating the issue on social media Saturday, attorneys pointed to precedents in which police obtained warrants to seize the work of independent journalists. In some cases, attorneys managed to retroactively quash the warrants and get the materials back.
“Same must happen here,” tweeted David Greene, civil liberties director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation of San Francisco.
Theodore Boutrous, a First Amendment lawyer in Los Angeles, said that “clearly” Carmody should not have been the focus of the Police Department’s investigation.
“They have a legitimate reason to find out who leaked information among themselves, but they should be searching in their own backyard,” Boutrous said. He urged City Attorney Dennis Herrera to press the case and recover Carmody’s possessions.
Carmody’s lawyer, Thomas Burke, agreed that the police went too far.
The warrant and seizures were “highly improper,” he said. Burke has represented The Chronicle and its parent company, Hearst Corp., in other cases.
Burke called the police and district attorney’s office Friday night, demanding that they freeze all the information confiscated from the search and not review any of the data on Carmody’s cell phones or laptops. He said he is still waiting for a response.
Snyder, the First Amendment Coalition director, said he’s mystified by the judges’ decision to sign the warrant, which he said violates the California Shield Law. It protects journalists who refuse to disclose their sources or turn over other materials associated with news gathering.
“It’s a chilling sign that the San Francisco Police Department had such low regard for journalists’ rights,” Snyder said.
But another civil liberties attorney, John Hamasaki, said this isn’t the right case to hold up as a cause celebre.
“There’s a reason that other news outlets were not targeted and raided,” said Hamasaki, who is also a San Francisco police commissioner. “It’s because there’s a difference between reporting and hawking a stolen item.”
He added: “There’s no First Amendment protection for profiting off the tragic death of Jeff Adachi.”