SFPD in cross hairs of press freedom fight after raid on journalist's home

A showdown over press freedom and police power is escalating in San Francisco after police raided a journalist’s home and office in trying to ferret out the identity of one of his sources.

Freelance videographer Bryan Carmody obtained a police report detailing the circumstances surrounding the death of the city’s well-known public defender, Jeff Adachi, back in February. He then sold information and video of the scene to multiple news agencies including KTVU, which regularly pays freelancers a fee for information and video.

Then last Friday, police officers – sledgehammers in hand – showed up at Carmody’s door. They searched and confiscated 55 items, including cell phones, tablets, hard drives, lap tops, reporter's notebooks and other equipment he uses daily as a freelancer. 

Carmody's attorney gave police a deadline of noon Tuesday to return the journalist’s belonging, but that deadline came and went. Now his lawyer is preparing to file motions before the same judges who granted the controversial search warrant in the first place. The warrant is partially sealed from public view.

Adachi was a high-profile critic of the police department and the police report leaked to Carmody about 24 hours after his death contained photos showing an unmade bed, syringes and bottles of alcohol. Many of his supporters thought the images, along with the revelation that he was with a woman who was not his wife when he died, were released on purpose to smear Adachi's reputation.

But Carmody says the police report helped dispel some of the rumor circulating surrounding Adachi’s death.

“We got some light shed on what happened by this report and being examined by us,” he told KTVU.

In April, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors called for an investigation into the leak. At that hearing, Capt. William Braconi testified the release of the report was “totally inappropriate” and launched two internal investigations into the report’s premature release — one of possible criminal misconduct, the other an internal administrative probe, the Chronicle reported.

KTVU purchased the police documents from Carmody and reported on some, but not all of the details. KTVU purposely did not air photos, such as the unmade bed, as there was not enough context about them at the time to understand what the images meant.

Carmody said he gets leaked police reports and other documents regularly, but he added getting these type of photos were out of the ordinary. “That’s pretty unusual.”

Carmody refuses to name his source.

“There’s only two people on this planet who know who leaked this report,” Carmody said, adding that he planned to keep in that way. “Nothing I have will give them that information.” 

Later, a coroner’s report released to the public concluded that Adachi died from a mixture of cocaine and alcohol, which caused his already damaged heart to stop.

Carmody said that the FBI accompanied San Francisco police on the search, which he assumed was because there is some concern that there is some sort of public corruption aspect to the search. But Carmody insisted that while he sold the report to outlets, he did not engage in a kickback scheme with the source.

“Not one shiny penny,” he said. “Not even a courtesy cup of coffee.” 

When asked what crime it is investigating as part of the search of Carmody’s home, San Francisco police said it is "investigating a potential case of obstruction of justice along with the illegal distribution of confidential police material."

“SFPD provides all known facts and information in support of a search warrant application. Department members followed all search warrant protocols during service to ensure the safety of the public,” a department spokesperson said in a statement.

This all has prompted the Society of Professional Journalists and First Amendments lawyers to condemn the raid. In a statement on Sunday, the organization said it is seeking more information as to why California’s Shield Law was not followed.

The Shield Law protects journalists from being held in contempt for refusing to disclose their sources’ identities and other unpublished or unaired information obtained during the news gathering process.

“Somebody may have broken department policy in releasing the report if the department didn't want to. But, I'm [not] aware of any law that would create a criminal violation to release the police report,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

Synder said police’s use of the partially sealed warrant is not only a threat to Carmody’s First Amendment rights but also the public at large, which would suffer if journalists cannot do their duty to inform the public.

“The rights that are protected under the California Shield Law are not just the rights of journalists, but the rights of the public to know what their government is up to,” Snyder said.

Earlier this week, it was unclear if the judges who signed the search warrant knew Carmody is a news gatherer. The probable cause statement attached to the search warrant has been sealed. But Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer told the Examiner and KQED on Monday that she had a private conversation with the police chief, and both police and the judges know what Carmody does for a living. KTVU was unsuccessful in getting the chief to respond to Fewer's retelling of their conversation. 

However, Fewer also disputed that Carmody is a newsman in her earlier statements, despite a vocal outcry from Snyder and other First Amendment experts that he is indeed just that.

 On Tuesday, she backtracked a bit in a tweet, admitting she doesn't know much about the law in this regard and that because of the "current political climate" there is an extra sensitivity to the "freedom of the press." 

Still, she added, she questions the "morality" of what Carmody did in selling the report, and what the media did in paying for it and airing a damaging story to Adachi, after his death, "which caused great harm to his loved ones."