San Francisco police served a search warrant at the home of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody on May 10. (Courtesy of Bryan Carmody)

SF police say journalist suspected of conspiring to steal report

Raid on freelance videographer drew widespread condemnation

Facing scrutiny for carrying out legally questionable raids on the home and office of a freelance journalist, Police Chief Bill Scott said Tuesday that the videographer was a suspect in a criminal conspiracy to steal a police report on the death of the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

Scott said at an afternoon news conference that police executed the search warrants against stringer Bryan Carmody on May 10 because the videographer allegedly went beyond his role as a journalist when he obtained and sold the report.

“Leaks happen all the time,” Scott told reporters. “The difference that we believe here is we believe the reporter crossed the line. We believe that he took a part in this criminal activity. That’s the premise that we were going under.”

The Police Department has been under intense criticism for obtaining the search warrants in possible violation of state and federal laws protecting journalists from having search warrants issued against them.

Scott said his statements should not be taken as a defense of the search warrants, but his words suggested that police do not believe the warrants violated the law because Carmody himself is suspected of playing an active role in the alleged theft.

“Mr. Carmody was and continues to be viewed by investigators as a possible co-conspirator in this theft, rather than a passive recipient of the stolen document,” Scott said.

David Snyder, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition, said journalists are allowed to distribute leaked documents that are of public interest under the First Amendment, even if the records were stolen.

But Snyder acknowledged there is an exception for journalists who are “actively and specifically involved in breaking the law in the first place.” For example, Snyder said the difference might be between asking for a leaked document, and telling a source how to steal it.

In this case, Carmody maintains that he sold the report to multiple news outlets but that he did not pay his source for it. Carmody and his attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Scott alleged that Carmody’s motive for allegedly participating in the conspiracy was either financial gain, his contempt for Adachi or both. Carmody allegedly “indicated motive and expressed disdain for Mr. Adachi” in an interview with investigators, Scott said.

Carmody is a longtime freelancer who sells video and information to TV stations for work. He is known to have expressed conservative views.

He previously told The Examiner that he had “no beef with Jeff Adachi.”

Regardless of whether Carmody actively participated in the alleged theft, Snyder said he believes the California shield law still should have been applied to him, and that search warrants should not have been issued for his home and office.

The problem is that authorities can uncover information on more than one source by searching the home or office of a journalist, rather than obtaining a subpoena from a judge for specific information pertinent to a case.

“I still think a search warrant was unlawful,” Snyder said. California law “doesn’t say ‘no search warrant shall issue unless the reporter is suspected of a crime,’ it says ‘no search warrant shall issue.’”

Scott declined to reveal the evidence police have against Carmody proving his alleged participation in the criminal conspiracy. But police had to show probable cause to two judges to obtain the warrants against Carmody earlier this month.

“This just throws into sharp relief how critical it is that the search warrant materials are unsealed,” Snyder said. “It’s one thing for the police chief to say these things at a press conference, but the key question is what arguments did the police say to the judge?”

The announcement came on the same day as that a San Francisco Superior Court judge heard three motions in the case.

The First Amendment Coalition has filed a motion to unseal the search warrant applications.

Tom Burke, an attorney for Carmody, has also filed motions seeking to have the search warrants invalidated and the items police seized during the raids returned to his client. Burke believes police should have subpoenaed Carmody instead of searching his home and office.

“It’s like a sniper shot as opposed to a search warrant, which is a net,” Burke told reporters at the Hall of Justice. “It grabs everything you’ve ever worked on. That’s never appropriate. It’s not appropriate in San Francisco, it’s not appropriate anywhere in the country.”

Burke said police planned to release the seized items to Carmody as of Monday evening. Whether police made copies or viewed the information contained in the reporters’ notebooks, computers and other seized materials has yet to be seen.

Burke has asked Judge Samuel Feng to prevent the information obtained through the search warrants from being used against Carmody or his source in a criminal or administrative investigation.

Feng gave police until the end of the month to respond to the allegations. Arguments over the motions are not scheduled to be heard in court until after June 10, when attorneys will choose a date to debate the case.

This story has been updated to include additional information.

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Police Chief Bill Scott on Tuesday said police suspect journalist Bryan Carmody may have been involved in a criminal conspiracy to steal a police report following the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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