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San Francisco police use search warrant to raid home, office of independent journalist

May 14, 2019

On May 10, 2019, San Francisco police officers raided the home and office of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody as part of an investigation into one of Carmody’s confidential sources.

Carmody told the Los Angeles Times that he awoke to 10 or so officers from the San Francisco Police Department banging on his front gate with a sledgehammer. He said he allowed them in after being shown a search warrant signed by a state court judge. The SFPD officers then handcuffed him and searched his house with guns drawn.

Carmody was not formally arrested or charged with any crime, but he was detained for more than five hours. When he was finally released, the SFPD gave him a receipt showing that he had been in police custody from 8:22 a.m. to 1:55 p.m.

While Carmody was in SFPD custody, two FBI agents asked to interview him, but he refused and requested an attorney. An FBI spokeswoman later told the Times that the FBI agents were not involved in the search of Carmody’s house. Technically speaking, Carmody was only raided by the SFPD, not by federal agents.

During the raid on Carmody’s house, the SFPD learned that Carmody also used a separate office space for his independent media company, North Bay News, and quickly obtained a search warrant for the office space, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In the end, the officers who searched Carmody’s house ended up seizing multiple notebooks, computers, phones, and cameras, while those who searched his office seized a USB thumb drive, multiple CDs, and a copy of a confidential police report into the death of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

A source had leaked that police report to Carmody shortly after Adachi died unexpectedly on Feb. 22. 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 it.

Progressive politicians roundly condemned the sensationalist coverage of Adachi’s death and accused the SFPD of deliberately leaking the police report to the media in order to smear Adachi, who had been a frequent critic of the police department. The SFPD also condemned the leak and pledged to track down the source of the police report.

According to the Chronicle, SFPD Captain William Braconi testified during a special hearing in April that the police department had launched both an internal administrative probe and a criminal investigation into the leak.

A few weeks before the May 10 raid, two San Francisco police officers visited Carmody and asked him to identify the source who had leaked him a copy of the police report. Carmody refused. Carmody told the California Globe that when he refused, the officers warned him that if he did not identify his source, then he could be subject to a federal grand jury subpoena.

But Carmody never received a subpoena, either from a federal grand jury or a state prosecutor, which he could have contested in court. Instead, a state court judge secretly authorized the SFPD to raid his house and seize his devices.

David Stevenson, a spokesman for the SFPD, said that the raid on Carmody was part of the SFPD’s criminal investigation.

“The citizens and leaders of the City of San Francisco have demanded a complete and thorough investigation into this leak, and this action represents a step in the process of investigating a potential case of obstruction of justice along with the illegal distribution of confidential police material,” he told the Times.

According to the Times, two judges of the San Francisco Superior Court — Gail Dekreon and Victor Hwang — approved the warrants to search Carmody’s house and office, respectively.

It is not clear who requested the warrants. A spokeswoman for the San Francisco district attorney’s office told the Times that the office was not involved in preparing the warrants.

Nor is it clear whether Dekreon and Hwang knew that Carmody was a journalist when they authorized the searches of his house and office space

Thomas Burke, an attorney at Davis Wright & Tremaine who is representing Carmody, said that the raid violated Carmody’s First Amendment rights. He told the Times that the investigators should have issued a subpoena for the records they wanted from Carmody, rather than raiding his newsroom and seizing documents unrelated to the investigation.

“So much information has nothing to do with the purpose of their investigation,” he said. “If you are looking for one piece of information, that’s why you issue a subpoena.”

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

May 21, 2019 Update

Following a hearing in the case, a San Francisco police attorney said equipment seized from independent journalist Bryan Carmody during a raid at his home on May 10, 2019, can now be collected, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Chronicle also reported that San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng did not hear any motions in the case, including to quash and unseal warrants used in the raid, and to return the equipment.

In a tweet following the hearing, Carmody said he was pleased the items would be returned.

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.

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