SAN FRANCISCO - Police agreed Tuesday to return property seized from a San Francisco journalist in a raid, but the decision did little to ease tensions in the case, which has alarmed journalism advocates and put pressure on city leaders.
Authorities have said the May 10 raids on freelancer Bryan Carmody’s home and office were part of an investigation into what police called the illegal leak of a report on the death of former Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who died unexpectedly in February.
Media organizations across the country criticized the raids as a violation of California’s shield law, which specifically protects journalists from search warrants. The Associated Press is among dozens of news organizations siding with Carmody and seeking to submit a friend-of-the-court brief.
A police attorney said at a hearing that officers would give back Carmody’s property, but the case will soon be back in court. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng did not rule Tuesday on requests by Carmody’s attorney and media organizations to unseal warrant materials and revoke the search warrants, but the judge set deadlines for further filings.
?City leaders criticized
The editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle has joined with other publications in criticizing city leaders, including Mayor London Breed, for failing to quickly condemn the police actions. A Chronicle report published Monday named supervisors who have not returned messages for comment on the raids in which police, armed with a sledgehammer, attempted to enter Carmody’s home and then cuffed him for hours.
Breed initially defended the raids but Sunday posted messages on Twitter saying she was “not okay” with raids on reporters.
District Attorney George Gascon, whose office would normally be responsible for prosecuting Carmody, condemned the police. He said he has not seen the warrants, which are sealed, but he could not imagine a situation where warrants would be appropriate.
“Seizing the entire haystack to find the needle risks violating the confidences Mr. Carmody owes to all his sources, not just the person who leaked the police report,” he said in a Monday tweet.
The city attorney’s office did not send an attorney to Tuesday’s hearing, and spokesman John Cote said the office is “not appearing in court on that matter.”
It was unclear if City Attorney Dennis Herrera had declined to assist the police department. The duties of the city attorney’s office include providing legal services to city agencies such as police. Cote did not respond to emails seeking details.
Carmody said on Twitter that he was pleased with the return of his equipment, but that he will have to replace numerous cameras, cellphones and computers for security reasons. A GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $15,000 for him.
His main goal, he said, is to ensure “that nothing seized can be used against myself, North Bay Television News or our sources.”
In court documents, Carmody has said he is a veteran journalist who is often the first on the scene of breaking news. He provides video news packages to outlets in return for payment.
He said a source gave him a preliminary police report on Adachi’s death that contained unsavory details. Carmody went on to sell copies of the report along with video footage from the scene of the death and information obtained from interviews to three news stations.
Police report leaked
The leak infuriated city supervisors. They scolded police for anonymously releasing the report to the press, saying it was an attempt to smear the legacy of Adachi, who was an outspoken critic of police. An autopsy blamed Adachi’s Feb. 22 death on a mixture of cocaine and alcohol that compromised an already bad heart.
People who want to crack down on journalists come in all political stripes, said Jim Wheaton, founder of the First Amendment Project, a public interest law firm.
“They went after him because he’s all by himself,” Wheaton said. “And the fact that he sells the materials that he packages. He puts together a journalism report including documents and sells it. That’s what journalism is.”
It was unclear who is paying Carmody’s legal fees. His attorney, Thomas Burke, declined to comment.
San Francisco police have defended the raids, and police attorney Ronnie Wagner said she intends to respond to the requests made by Burke and others. She declined to answer further questions Tuesday as reporters followed her down a courthouse staircase.
The First Amendment Coalition wants the judge to unseal the police department’s applications for two search warrants, which would show whether officers informed judges that Carmody is a journalist.