Application for warrant to raid freelance cameraman’s home may have included vague and incomplete language about his journalistic status


San Francisco Police Department Chief Bill Scott apologized on Friday for the department’s raid of the home of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody, which in recent weeks has sparked an onslaught of criticism from media outlets, First Amendment advocates, and prominent public officials.

Scott conceded the department may have violated state laws protecting journalists from such raids.

The rare apology — a total about-face — by the police chief comes only days after he revealed at a press conference that his department was investigating Carmody as an alleged “co-conspirator” in the leaking and dissemination of a police report detailing the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s sudden death in February. That announcement, delivered Tuesday, elicited a new round of outrage over press freedom.

“I am specifically concerned by a lack of due diligence by department investigators in seeking search warrants and appropriately addressing Mr. Carmody’s status as a member of the news media,” Scott wrote today. “This has raised important questions about our handling of this case and whether the California shield law was violated.”

Over the last 48 hours, he said, he’s conducted a “top-to-bottom review” of the department’s criminal investigation into the leaked Adachi report. He said that, at the request of Mayor London Breed, the SFPD is seeking “independent, impartial investigation by a separate investigatory body.”

Over the last 24 hours, he said, he has contacted outside law enforcement agencies to take over the criminal investigation.

On May 10, police stormed Carmody’s home, taking a sledgehammer to his door, handcuffing him for hours, and seizing dozens of cameras, computers, notebooks — and a hard copy of the Adachi police report.

The raiding of a journalist’s home to ostensibly suss out his confidential sources was an alarming measure, and legal scholars noted that California’s “shield law” protects journalists against exactly this eventuality. Section 1070 of the state’s Evidence Code states that no print or TV journalist can be held in contempt for failing to turn over sources for both stories and “unpublished information.” Section 1524(g) of the state penal code is a blanket affirmation that a search warrant cannot be issued for any of the items described in Section 1070 of the Evidence Code.

This is a broad and unambiguous prohibition against actions such as the SFPD took. Yet, earlier this week, Scott upped the ante, rationalizing the raid as not an external maneuver to identify an internal SFPD bad actor but part of an investigation against “an active participant in a crime.”

Mission Local earlier reported that Judges Gail Dekreon and Victor Hwang purportedly knew Carmody was a journalist when they signed off the warrant authorizing the raid. Additionally, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer told the Examiner that Scott assured her that the judges were aware of Carmody’s “journalistic or media background.” But Scott’s statement today casts doubt on exactly what they knew and when they knew it. 

Scott’s unease at “a lack of due diligence” and “appropriately addressing Mr. Carmody’s status as a member of the news media,” is noteworthy. It is unclear if investigators adequately researched whether Carmody possessed an SFPD press pass (he does), where his work tended to appear, and other germane issues. All of this could have been determined by an investigator (or a judge), within minutes, with a rudimentary Google search. 

The warrant application and affidavit remain sealed. During Chief Scott’s Tuesday press conference, he noted that “Mr. Carmody’s LinkedIn profile shows that he is a ‘Freelance Videographer/Communications Manager, USO Bay Area” and that he was not employed by any of the news organizations who received the stolen report.

Mission Local is informed that similar text may have been included in the warrant application.

Calls to Carmody have not yet been returned. He is now represented by First Amendment attorney Thomas Burke, and lawyers from the firm Keker, Van Nest & Peters will handle any criminal matters, underwritten by $50,000 from the Press Freedom Defense Fund.