Despite a strong California shield law allowing journalists to protect their sources, San Francisco police used a sledgehammer to smash through the door of the home of a freelance journalist and confiscated his electronic equipment in a bid to find the source who leaked a police report about the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
Bryan Carmody told The New York Times after the incident in which he was handcuffed for six hours that his wrists remained sore and he was anxious for the return of his laptops, phones, and hard drives, containing documents and images he accumulated in his job the last 29 years.
It wasn’t clear whether any of the equipment contained information about the source. The incident illustrated the need for journalists to use encrypted messages, untraceable emails and dropboxes and other clandestine means to protect themselves.
Carmody’s lawyer, Thomas Burke, said he would pursue legal action against the San Francisco Police Department, requesting all the equipment be returned. “Part of the reason there has been such a reaction to this,” Burke said, “is that you don’t want it to become the norm that when law enforcement wants information they send 10 guys with a sledgehammer and guns to get it.”
The raid set off an alarm in a US journalism community that increasingly has come under attack as it probes wrongdoing and whose sources increasingly also face prosecution and reprisals.
“The seizure and search of the guy’s home and office were totally inappropriate and out of bounds,” Matt Drange, the co-chair of the freedom of information committee of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists told the paper. “Publishing a leaked document is not breaking the law.”
The report said that Adachi, who had clashed with police over department abuses, collapsed in an apartment with a woman who was not his wife. His supporters said they believe it was the police who had leaked this in order to damage his reputation.
Carmody said the police report was crucial to understanding an unexpected death of an important city official after reporters were told Adachi died while “on the road” for work.
Carmody gathers information and footage and sells stories to clients, mainly national and Bay Area television stations. He said his story about Adachi included footage, interviews and the police report.
The Times said it wasn’t known whether authorities violated the shield law about confidential sources or whether judges who signed the warrants were aware Carmody was a journalist.