U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

San Diego County subpoenas journalist Kelly Davis

Incident Details

Date of Incident
November 9, 2017

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
Kelly Davis
— Kelly Davis
November 9, 2017

Freelance reporter Kelly Davis was subpoenaed by attorneys representing San Diego County, California, on Nov. 9, 2017. She was ordered to testify at a deposition and turn over materials related to her reporting on the high number of deaths in San Diego County jails. On Feb. 2, 2018, a federal magistrate ruled in favor of Davis, defeating the subpoena.

Davis has been writing about deaths in San Diego jails for years. In 2013, while working at San Diego City Beat, she and colleague Dave Maass reported that San Diego County had the highest inmate mortality rate out of California’s largest jail systems. Since then, her reporting has been cited in a number of wrongful death lawsuits and complaints filed against San Diego County. 

The widow of Kris Nesmith, an inmate who died while in prison, sued the County of San Diego in 2015. At the time, Davis wrote an article about the lawsuit for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In November 2017, attorneys for San Diego County subpoenaed Davis, seeking her testimony as well as her unpublished research related to her reporting.

The subpoena orders Davis to appear at a deposition on December 11 and to produce “any and all documents, notes, and recordings, including in electronic format, that you relied on when reporting and/or publishing that the San Diego County’s incarceration mortality rate ‘leads in California’s largest jails.’”

“They wanted everything, written or electronic,” Davis told the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It was a huge fishing investigation to try to get every nook and cranny of information that I had.”

Maass, who co-wrote the 2013 San Diego City Beat story with Davis, was not subpoenaed in the case. He never wrote specifically about the Kris Nesmith case, and he no longer lives in San Diego or writes about the county’s jails. He criticized San Diego County for attempting to subpoena Davis.

“This subpoena is of course frightening when it comes to press freedom, but as someone who worked on these stories, it’s concerning that this is how they address safety issues in their jails,” he said. “Rather than address them and stop killing people, the county comes after the messengers who did this research.” 

After Davis’ attorneys objected to the subpoena, San Diego County filed a motion to compel Davis’ testimony. In the motion to compel, attorneys for San Diego County argued that, since Davis’ reporting would be cited during the trial, they should be allowed to question her like an expert witness.

“They wanted to cut undercut my reporting and to challenge the methodology that my colleague and I initially used,” Davis said. 

On Feb. 2, federal magistrate judge Andrew Schopler ruled in favor of Davis, defeating the subpoena. Davis will not have to testify or hand over her unpublished reporting materials. 

San Diego County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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