SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A newly unsealed warrant shows a California judge should have known he was authorizing police to search a journalist’s office in violation of state and federal laws that prohibit such intrusions, a press-freedom advocate argued Tuesday.
“No judge should have issued this particular warrant,” said First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder by phone.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Victor Hwang signed the warrant May 10, allowing police to seize all computers, phones and other electronic devices from freelance journalist Bryan Carmody’s Fulton Street office.
A police sergeant’s warrant application portrayed Carmody as a criminal for obtaining and offering to sell to media outlets a “stolen” police report on the Feb. 22 death of late San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Adachi was found with a woman other than his wife when he died from a mixture of cocaine and alcohol that exacerbated a heart condition, according to an autopsy.
The warrant affidavit states that Carmody told police investigators on April 12 that he “profits financially from every story he covers” and that police knew him as a “stringer,” or freelance news reporter.
According to Snyder, those statements prove Hwang had “more than enough facts” before him to know Carmody was a reporter protected by California’s journalist shield law.
“How did the judges miss this clear black letter law in the California Penal Code that says no warrant shall issue for information in the possession of a journalist?” Snyder asked.
Hwang is one of five judges who granted requests for warrants to search Carmody’s home, office and phone records. Four of the five warrants have since been quashed.
Snyder said the fact that five judges issued warrants to go after a reporter shows they need better training on how to apply the law.
“I think there needs to be some serious education for superior court judges about the parameters of the journalist shield law because we have five different warrants that should have never been issued,” he said.
The document unsealed Tuesday also revealed that police learned through a prior search warrant the names of officers that Carmody exchanged calls and text messages with on Feb. 23. One of the officers spoke with Carmody before and after spending 20 minutes at the San Francisco Police Department’s Central Station.
Police Sgt. Joseph Obidi, who wrote the warrant affidavit, stated the officer who had been in contact with Carmody did not appear to have any assignments near the station at that time. Obidi wrote that he believed the officer’s visit to the station was “for the purpose of accessing the death investigation report.”
Though police cannot use information obtained from the quashed warrants for any purpose, Snyder said the damage is already done because it shows how easily police can go after a journalist’s sources.
“This whole saga sends a chill across journalism because it suggests when police really want to get at something by way of a search warrant, they can do it because the judges won’t be paying close attention,” Snyder said.
Snyder has called for “accountability at the highest levels” of city government. He does not believe the decision to target Carmody came from one rogue police sergeant.
“I think this was likely directed from the top of City Hall,” he said.
In an emailed statement, the SFPD said the agency’s leadership is concerned about a “lack of due diligence” in seeking search warrants targeting a member of the press.
SFPD spokesman Joseph Tomlinson said the city’s Department of Police Accountability is investigating the matter, that the department is reviewing its protocols, and that it has reached out to “outside agencies” to take over the criminal investigation into the leaked police report.
Attorney Duffy Carolan, of Jassy Vicky Carolan, filed motions to unseal the warrants. She represents the First Amendment Coalition, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Carmody’s attorney, Thomas Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine, did not immediately return emails and phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.
A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 16 on motions to quash and unseal a fifth warrant for Carmody’s phone records.