REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) – An unsealed search warrant in the case of a leaked iPhone 4G prototype does not put to rest questions about journalists’ First Amendment rights to be shielded from searches but does reveal a convoluted series of events.
San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Clifford Cretan unsealed the search warrant and affidavit in response to requests by media organizations, which argued that the records could reveal whether prosecutors broke the law in searching the property of Gizmodo.com blogger James Chen for the lost prototype. They claimed that under state law, the affidavit, filed on April 29, became public record after 10 days.
The unsealed records do not explicitly state that Chen writes for the technology Web site, a status that his lawyers argue protects him under state and federal shield laws. Chen bought the unreleased iPhone 4G prototype from Brian Hogan, who had found it at a Redwood City restaurant.
The federal Privacy Protection Act immunizes news organizations from most searches, and state law bars judges from signing search warrants that target writers for newspapers, magazines or “other periodical publications,” which a state appeals court ruled includes bloggers like Chen.
New organizations can be searched, however, if a writer is suspected of a crime. The search warrant includes an email written by Gizmodo.com editor Brian Lam, in which he tells Apple CEO Steve Jobs that Gizmodo “did not know [the phone] was stolen when [they] bought it.”
According to the warrant, Chen took the phone apart, showing the internal components in pictures and videos on the tech blog. Apple employees were unable to re-assemble the phone, claiming Chen’s actions had damaged it beyond repair.
In an email, Lam justifies Gizmodo’s aggressive approach, writing that “Apple PR has been cold to us lately. It affected my ability to do my job right at iPad launch. So we had to go outside and find our stories like this one, very aggressively.” Lam also said he thinks Gizmodo “has more in common with old Apple” than other mainstream technology writers.
The stolen iPhone saga began when a bar patron in Redwood City, Calif., asked 21-year-old Hogan if an iPhone left on a bar stool belonged to him. According to the unsealed records, Hogan said that it did not, but when nobody claimed the phone, Hogan took it home with him.
Hogan realized later that the phone, tucked in an Apple iPhone 3G3 case, was actually an unreleased 4G iPhone prototype and that it belonged to Apple engineer Robert “Gray” Powell. Hogan contacted Gizmodo.com, PC World and Engadget.com in an attempt to start a bidding war. He eventually sold the phone to Gizmodo.com for $5,000, claiming the technology blog would receive “millions and millions of hits” from the story.
Police later tracked down Hogan based on a tip from his roommate when Hogan tried to remove incriminating evidence from his apartment, at which point Hogan agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
Neither Hogan nor Chen have been charged with a crime. In an email to Jobs, Lam says Powell does not love “anything more than Apple, except, well, beer,” and that instead of losing his job, the Apple engineer should “maybe” get some “spankings.”
Hogan was less sympathetic to Powell’s plight, according to the documents. When his roommate and her friends tried to talk him out of selling the iPhone, claiming it could ruin Powell’s career, Hogan allegedly replied, “Sucks for him. He lost his phone. Shouldn’t have lost his phone.”