Police Raid Of Journalist's Home In San Francisco Sets Off First Amendment Firestorm

May 14, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 6:25 pm
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San Francisco police came to the door of a journalist's home last Friday armed with sledgehammers. They were trying to track down the source of a leak of sensitive information. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, their actions set off a firestorm over the First Amendment.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: As Brian Carmody tells it, he woke up on Friday with a thunderous sound and saw that the men outside were wearing blue police windbreakers.

BRYAN CARMODY: Yeah. I asked them if they had a search warrant. They said yes. I opened the door for them. They basically all streamed into my house. The first gentleman immediately handcuffed me.

FOLKENFLIK: Carmody would stay in handcuffs for six hours, he said.

CARMODY: Officers, as they came into my home, pulled out their handguns and searched my home at gunpoint.

FOLKENFLIK: They searched his office near City Hall, too. Carmody is the kind of freelance journalist who constantly keeps police scanners and local TV newscasts blaring, chasing late-night developments about crime and celebrities and storms for tips and stories he can sell to local stations. The police took videotapes and notebooks going back decades.

CARMODY: So I'm standing there in the middle of my office with no computers, no cellphones, you know, nothing. I've got the key to the door, and that's it.

FOLKENFLIK: Carmody's story involved the death of the city's chief public defender Jeff Adachi back in late February. Carmody had obtained a police report and sold it, he says, to three stations. The raid has set off alarm bells among journalists asking why the police didn't get a subpoena giving Carmody a chance to challenge it in court. The LA Times says the raid violates a state law shielding reporters' sources. The San Francisco Chronicle calls it an assault on the First Amendment. Joel Simon runs the Committee to Protect Journalists.

JOEL SIMON: Journalists feel that they are under threat. Their sources are under threat. Their profession is under threat. They're being, you know, attacked and undermined at least rhetorically. And then you have, you know, cops kicking down their door.

FOLKENFLIK: On the federal level, Simon says, the Trump administration's Justice Department is putting teeth into leak investigations by expanding use of the Espionage Act, imperiling sources and putting reporters in legal jeopardy, too.

SIMON: It creates an impression that the routine, essential work that journalists do is being threatened.

FOLKENFLIK: In San Francisco, Jeff Adachi had been a strong critic of the police. And some public officials and Adachi's survivors say the department has much to answer for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUTSUKO ADACHI: It was despicable what the police department did to myself and my daughter by releasing the police report.

FOLKENFLIK: Jeff Adachi's widow Mutsuko Adachi addressed the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in mid-April.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADACHI: It was all over the news. We had no privacy.

FOLKENFLIK: Reporters said Adachi died at a borrowed apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The police photos show the apartment interior - an unmade bed, empty bottles of alcohol, cannabis gummies...

FOLKENFLIK: That from San Francisco's ABC7, which reported a woman who later left the scene had called 911. This from rival KTVU.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The police report includes photos that showed empty liquor bottles, a condom wrapper and...

FOLKENFLIK: Police officials have apologized to the Adachi family and defend the raid as necessary to investigate what they call an illegal leak. In early April, Carmody says, two police detectives politely asked him who gave him the report. Carmody tells NPR he did not pay for the information but declined to reveal his source to police. As any reporter knows, if you burn one source, the rest evaporate. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.