REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) – San Mateo County authorities withdrew a search warrant against an online blogger who exposed features of the iPhone 4 before its release, but reserved the right to file charges in the future.
The material seized in an April raid, including computers and digital records, will be returned to blogger Jason Chen and Gizmodo.com after Chen voluntarily agreed to submit information from the devices, according to court documents
The voluntary withdrawal has led some to speculate that a deal was struck in which authorities agreed to grant Chen immunity from prosecution in return for handing over the equipment.
But Deputy District Attorney Steven Wagstaffe said that was “absolutely not” the case. He said “the book is still open” on Chen, Gizmodo.com and Brian Hogan, the bar patron who sold the prototype to Gizmodo for $5,000.
“Mr. Chen’s attorney came to us with the idea that if we agreed to withdraw the search warrant, they would agree to grant us access to the information,” Wagstaffe said.
He added that “the First Amendment issue is no longer an issue because it becomes information voluntarily submitted by Mr. Chen.”
Apple CEO Steve Jobs had urged San Mateo County Detective Matthew Broad to pursue Chen and Gizmodo.com after Chen appeared in an online video showing him disassembling an iPhone 4 prototype.
Authorities investigated whether a crime was committed when Chen bought the prototype from 21-year-old Hogan, who claimed he had found it in a Redwood City bar.
The subsequent search warrant drew fierce criticism from First Amendment experts who said it violated shield laws barring police from seizing journalists’ notes.
Matt Zimmerman, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the withdrawal “a positive step,” but cautioned that it “likely isn’t the end of the matter,” and that police could still “attempt to subpoena the same material” without running afoul of relevant shield laws.
Zimmerman wrote in his blog that the search warrant “never should have issued.”
Chen’s article infuriated Jobs when it appeared on Gizmodo.com in April. Jobs claimed that he got “a lot of advice from people that said, ‘You’ve got to just let it slide. You shouldn’t go after a journalist because they bought stolen property and tried to extort you.”
Brian Lam, editor of Gizmodo.com, said at the time that he would return the phone if Apple confirmed in writing that the phone belonged to the company, an act that does not fit the elements of the crimes of extortion or theft.
Jobs added that it would be wrong for him and Apple to submit to such conduct, saying he would “rather quit.” Jobs referred to the saga again at last Friday’s news conference when he said: “You know, sometimes websites buy stolen prototypes and put them on the Web. And we don’t like that.”
As of Monday, charges had not been filed against Chen, Hogan or anyone involved in the case.
Tom Nolan, Chen’s criminal defense lawyer, indicated he was confident the investigation would find his client did not commit a crime.