Gizmodo ‘not motivated by financial greed’ in iPhone case, D.A. says

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The San Mateo district attorney’s office has opted not to charge Gizmodo and writer Jason Chen for buying an iPhone prototype from a man who found it in a bar last year, months before the device was made public.

Chen and Gizmodo’s decision to pay $5,000 for the lost iPhone was ‘not motivated by financial greed,’ said Morley Pitt, San Mateo County’s assistant district attorney. ‘His claim was that he was undertaking a journalistic investigation.’


Pitt’s office will go ahead with misdemeanor ‘possession of stolen property’ and ‘misappropriation of lost property’ charges against two people who allegedly took the iPhone prototype without permission.

Journalists and their work are generally protected by state and federal shield laws, making it more difficult for prosecutors to legally obtain their notes, or to use them in criminal prosecutions. Law enforcement officials raided Chen’s home after he posted pictures of the lost iPhone on, and seized dozens of items, including computers, hard drives and documents.

‘We had a conflict between the penal code and the 1st Amendment and California shield laws,’ Pitt said. ‘We felt that the potential Gizmodo defendant [Chen] had a potential 1st Amendment argument -- one that we weren’t prepared to address on this particular set of circumstances.’

The case began in April 2010 when Chen created a sensation by posting photos to of the yet-unseen iPhone 4 prototype, which was left in a Bay Area beer garden by an Apple employee, then found and offered for sale by one of the two suspects facing charges.

A few days later, the maelstrom widened when an elite law enforcement task force stormed Chen’s Bay Area home, breaking down the door and seizing a long list of items while he was out.

The task force, called REACT (for Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team), is a kind of SWAT team, chartered in 1997 to focus on ‘large-scale crimes that victimize the high-technology industry in the Bay Area.’ A story by the Times last May investigated ties between REACT and the technology industry.


When asked about the level of force used in the raid on Chen’s home, Pitt from the San Mateo district attorney’s office said law enforcement officials ‘take whatever steps are necessary to effectuate the search warrant. For whatever reason they determined, for that case at that time, it was the necessary response.’


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-- David Sarno