The controversial search of a veteran San Francisco journalist’s home and office by police as part of a leak investigation about Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s death was “violent and breathtakingly overbroad,” the reporter’s attorneys told a judge Thursday.
The attorneys representing freelance videographer Bryan Carmody asked a San Francisco County Superior Court judge to void the search warrants that allowed police to show up with sledgehammers and raid his home at gunpoint. His lawyers also asked the judge to order the return of 68 items — computers, notebooks, hard drives and phones — seized by officers.
Authorities were investigating how Carmody obtained the police report that offered details and photos related to the sudden death of Adachi on Feb. 22 at an apartment in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood.
Carmody said he sold a package of his reporting, which included the report, to Bay Area TV stations. But the salacious details broadcast on television and online prompted anger from Adachi’s family and condemnation of police for allowing the report to get into journalists’ hands.
“It is black-letter constitutional law that a reporter cannot be held liable, criminally or civilly, for receiving, possessing or publishing truthful information on matters of public concern merely because government officials were supposed to keep the information secret,” Carmody’s attorneys, Thomas R. Burke and Daniel Laidman, told the judge in their motion Thursday. Both attorneys have previously represented the Los Angeles Times.
Citing strong legal protections for journalists, including the federal Privacy Protection Act and the state’s Shield Law, which is included in the California Constitution, the lawyers said the warrants were “plainly invalid.”
“State and federal law make it virtually impossible for government officials to obtain and execute search warrants targeting journalists’ newsgathering material,” the attorneys said in their motion.
The motion will be heard Tuesday morning before Judge Samuel Feng, the assistant presiding judge of San Francisco Superior Court.
A spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department declined to comment. Chief Bill Scott defended the searches during a Wednesday night police commission meeting.
“We went through the appropriate legal process in furtherance of a criminal investigation,” Scott said. Asked by a commissioner if police considered issuing a subpoena, Scott did not give a clear answer.
The warrants in question — for Carmody’s home and the office of his news company, North Bay News — were approved, respectively, by Judges Gail Dekreon and Victor Hwang. Neither has responded to a request for comment, and judges are ethically prohibited from discussing pending cases.
Also Thursday, the nonpartisan First Amendment Coalition, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the local branch of the Society of Professional Journalists asked the same judge to immediately unseal the warrants obtained by police.
The sealed affidavits would outline how investigators had probable cause. The public portion of the warrants said police were investigating “stolen or embezzled” property.
“The warrants at issue here are particularly troubling — and it is therefore particularly important to provide the public with information about how and why they were issued,” the groups’ attorneys said in the motion.
Adachi was the city’s longtime public defender who gained a reputation for championing civil rights and criticizing the Police Department. He died Feb. 22 at the age of 59.
Carmody, who has worked as a freelance videographer for nearly three decades, was pursuing details about Adachi’s death when he said that he “passively” obtained an incident report that added intrigue to the unfolding story.
“I did not ask the source to provide me with this document — but when it was provided to me, they insisted that I not reveal their identity. I did not pay or provide any compensation whatsoever to this source for providing this report to me — nor did I promise them that I would pay or compensate them in the future in any way,” Carmody said in court papers.
The document, as reported by KGO-TV in San Francisco, said Adachi had dinner with a woman named Caterina, who was not his wife, then returned to an apartment he was using for the weekend. The woman called 911 for emergency medical help, and Adachi was rushed to the hospital.
Later that night, officers went to the apartment and found “alcohol, cannabis-infused gummies and syringes believed to have been used by the paramedics,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The city medical examiner would later conclude that Adachi died of an accidental overdose of cocaine and alcohol.
Images of the apartment were circulated online. Carmody told the Chronicle that he sold the package, which generally includes documents, video and other reporting material, to three TV stations.
When the details of his death went public, it clashed with the prevailing narrative of Adachi and was viewed by some as a smear attempt by critics in the Police Department. His widow and city officials chastised police for allowing images and notes from the confidential report to get into the media’s hands.
“I can say everybody, no matter how you felt about Jeff Adachi, was appalled at the release of the police reports,” Police Commissioner John Hamasaki said at the Wednesday meeting. “It was an attack on Mr. Adachi, an attack on his family, and it was an attack on the department.”
Police launched an internal investigation. In April, investigators showed up at Carmody’s home and asked him to reveal the identity of who leaked the report, he told The Times in an interview.
“Of course, I politely declined,” Carmody said. On the morning of May 10, eight to 10 police officers arrived with a sledgehammer, banging on his gate, and searched Carmody’s home. He was handcuffed for the duration of the search, about six hours, and police hauled away hard drives, cellphones, notebooks and thumb drives, according to an inventory log police left behind.
During the search, two FBI agents took the handcuffed Carmody into his home office, spoke with him for five minutes and pressed him about the Adachi report, he said.
“The agents repeatedly asked me to reveal the name of my confidential source,” Carmody said in a declaration that accompanied Thursday’s motion.
Police then searched Carmody’s newsroom at North Bay News, where investigators found the sought-after Adachi incident report in a safe, he said.
Outrage over the searches quickly spread, with advocates, legal experts and media groups criticizing police for apparently violating state and federal laws that protect journalists and their unpublished materials.
“It’s pretty plainly unlawful,” David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said in an earlier interview. “It’s something you’d expect out of an authoritarian regime, not the city of San Francisco.”
Fifty-nine media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, joined an amicus letter supporting Carmody’s motion.
Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.