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San Francisco police seize multiple phone records of independent journalist Bryan Carmody

June 11, 2019

In March and April 2019, San Francisco police seized phone records for freelance journalist Bryan Carmody as part of an investigation into one of Carmody’s confidential sources.

On May 31, the San Francisco Police Department formally notified Carmody that it had obtained a warrant to seize his mobile phone records. In a letter to Carmody, SFPD Sgt. Joseph Obidi wrote: “Mr. Carmody is being investigated as a co-conspirator in the theft of the San Francisco Police report, involving the death investigation of Jeff Adachi.”

Adachi, the San Francisco Public Defender, died unexpectedly on Feb. 22. Shortly after, Carmody obtained a copy of an SFPD report into Adachi’s death. The police report included salacious details about Adachi’s drug use and possible extramarital affair, and Carmody used the leaked report as the centerpiece of a story about Adachi’s death. Carmody sold his story on Adachi’s death to local TV news stations, who ran segments about the police report.

Sgt. Obidi’s May 31 letter to Carmody stated that the SFPD had executed a search warrant on March 1 to compel Verizon to turn over Carmody’s mobile phone records, including “subscriber information, call detail records, SMS usage, mobile data usage, cell tower data,” for the period of time between 8:33 p.m. on Feb. 22 and 10:44 p.m. on Feb. 23.

On June 1, Carmody received two more letters from Sgt. Obidi, notifying him that police had executed further warrants on March 13 and April 16 for his mobile phone records.

The March 13 warrant, like the earlier one executed on March 1, requested Verizon hand over Carmody’s mobile phone records for the same time period—between 8:33 p.m. on Feb. 22 and 10:44 p.m. on Feb. 23.

The April 16 warrant was served on both Verizon and AT&T and requested that the two carriers hand over mobile phone records for three different phone numbers for the time period between 1:13 p.m. on April 12 and 11:59 p.m. on April 15.

In addition to the warrants to seize Carmody’s mobile phone records, the SFPD obtained search warrants for Carmody’s home and office. On May 10, SFPD officers raided Carmody’s home and office and the reporter’s notebooks, computers, phones, and cameras.

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

July 18, 2019 Update

On Thursday, July 18, 2019, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Rochelle East quashed a search warrant used by San Francisco police to search Bryan Carmody’s phone, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Three more hearings are scheduled over the next few weeks, the Chronicle reported, including one on another warrant for cell phone surveillance as well as the searches of his home and office. A fifth hearing on another cell phone warrant is not scheduled.

Thursday’s ruling bars investigators from using any evidence that was obtained with the March 1 order, ABC7 News reported.

"Any information that the police department received as a result of that warrant is to be destroyed, they have to submit an affidavit to me that that was destroyed and it means they can't use any of it," said Tom Burke, Carmody's attorney.

ABC7 News said that in the hearing a sergeant testified he didn't know Carmody was a journalist, and the judge confirmed investigators did not disclose that Carmody was a journalist when seeking the phone records warrant.

August 2, 2019 Update

Three San Francisco superior court judges all ruled on Aug. 2, 2019, that warrants to search the home, phone and office of Bryan Carmody were invalid because of his career as a journalist, the San Francisco Examiner reported.

Judge Gail Dekreon, ruling on the home search warrant, also said at the hearing that she was not told Carmody had a current San Francisco press pass, according to the Examiner.

Judges Christopher Hite ruled on the phone search warrant dated April 16, and Judge Victor Hwang ruled on the office search warrant.

A total of five search warrants were obtained as part of the investigation into Carmody’s confidential sources. Two of those warrants culminated in an early-morning raid on May 10 of the freelance journalist’s home and office. One phone records warrant, dated March 1, was previously quashed in July by San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Rochelle East.

A hearing for the fifth and final warrant, also for Carmody’s phone records, is scheduled for Aug. 16.

The most recent rulings nullify the warrants in question and unseals their contents, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, making any evidence collected unusable by investigators.

August 16, 2019 Update

A San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, to quash the fifth and final search warrant police obtained against freelance journalist Bryan Carmody, according to 48 Hills, a San Francisco-based news site.

While this was the final warrant to be ruled on, it was the second issued in the San Francisco Police Department’s attempts to discover the identity of Carmody’s sources for information leaked about Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s death in February.

Four other warrants—two additional ones for Carmody’s cell phone records and one each for searches of his home and office—were previously quashed by other superior court judges.

According to the First Amendment Coalition, whose board member Thomas Burke represented Carmody in the hearing, Judge Joseph Quinn did not rule on unsealing the warrant.

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