U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Editor’s laptop, cellphone seized following publication of courtroom recording

Incident Details

Date of Incident
October 28, 2022
Waverly, Ohio
Status of Seized Equipment
In custody
Search Warrant Obtained

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

On Oct. 28, 2022, an Ohio judge authorized the search and seizure of a Scioto Valley Guardian laptop, shown here in a screenshot from the search warrant, that the outlet was using to livestream a Waverly murder trial.

October 28, 2022

An Ohio judge authorized the search and seizure of a laptop belonging to the Scioto Valley Guardian on Oct. 28, 2022. An officer with the Pike County Sheriff’s Office also seized the cellphone of the outlet’s top editor — without a warrant — a few days later.

Guardian Editor-in-Chief Derek Myers told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he has been covering the ongoing murder trial of George Wagner IV, which began in September. As part of that coverage, the newspaper was using a laptop to livestream witness testimony and exhibits. Judge Randy Deering issued an order before the trial began allowing anyone testifying in the case to “opt out” of being filmed by the media. The Fourth District Court of Appeals issued an emergency order overruling him partway through the testimony of Wagner’s brother, Jake, who was indicted alongside Wagner and their parents for the 2016 killings of eight members of the Rhoden family.

The court ordered that media be allowed to film unless Deering was able to show cause that it could jeopardize the fairness of the trial. Deering ruled that if Jake were to appear on camera he might be “nervous” and untruthful, again barring media from recording video or audio of him.

Myers told the Tracker that he was out of the country when Jake took the stand, but that someone in the courtroom surreptitiously recorded his testimony and provided it to the Guardian. After deliberation, Myers said he elected to move forward with publishing a condensed version of the audio on Oct. 28.

According to files reviewed by the Tracker, county court Judge Anthony Moraleja approved a search warrant for the Guardian laptop that same day, authorizing the search of the MacBook Pro and any computer software or communications contained on its hard drive. Myers told the Tracker someone from the court then seized the laptop, causing the outlet’s livestream to go down.

One of Myers’ attorneys, Greg Barwell, sent a letter on Oct. 31 asking the sheriff, prosecutor and the court to return the equipment, as the Guardian had not been presented with a subpoena or search warrant.

Myers went to the Pike County Courthouse on Nov. 2 to ask for the return of the laptop in person, as he still believed it had been seized by someone from the court. Unbeknownst to the Guardian, the laptop had been taken into custody by the sheriff’s office the previous day.

Myers told the Tracker that when he passed through the metal detector, a captain from the sheriff’s department told him he would have to take his cellphone back outside. He responded that he wouldn’t be going into the courtroom — where cellphones and laptops are prohibited — but would be remaining on the first floor.

Myers said the officer then kept his cellphone, claiming, “On second thought, I think I have a search warrant for that.”

The officer also told Myers that they had a search warrant for the laptop. The item seizure report reviewed by the Tracker has “Black I-Phone” written below the MacBook, confirming that it was seized at 10:29 a.m. on Nov. 2.

One of Myers’ attorneys, John Greiner, told the Tracker that the seizure of the devices likely violated Ohio’s shield law and the federal Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits searching or seizing journalistic work products with few exceptions.

In connection with the publication of the testimony recording, Myers was charged with intercepting wire, oral or electronic communications — a fourth degree felony — on Oct. 31. The Tracker has documented those charges here.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a founding partner of the Tracker, condemned the equipment seizure and the charges against Myers in a statement.

“The incompetency of local law enforcement to abide by basic legal proceedings would be comical if it were not so concerning,” said CPJ U.S. and Canada Program Coordinator Katherine Jacobsen. “Not only have Pike County authorities confiscated journalist Derek Myers’ cellphone and the Scioto Valley Guardian’s laptop without presenting a valid warrant, but they have also lobbed wiretapping charges against Myers for keeping the community informed about an ongoing murder trial. Retaliating against a news outlet, especially a small local publication, for doing their jobs in matters of public interest is completely unacceptable.”

Myers told the Tracker that he was able to regain control over his cellphone number on Nov. 4, but having the devices returned remains his and his attorneys’ first priority. He said he was extremely concerned about the potential search of the devices as they contain sensitive work product and source communications

“I can’t effectively do my job because I’m so focused and scared and worried about all these other people and their livelihoods are now on the line,” Myers said. “And I can’t cover the trial because I don’t have the equipment.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].