By the time Brian Carmody’s lawyers appeared in court Tuesday morning to argue for the return of his possessions, it became clear that the cache of belongings the San Francisco Police Department forcibly seized from his home this month was already available for him to pick up.
“We understand, as of last evening, the city was prepared to return everything,” said Thomas Burke, Carmody’s lawyer.
The trove of cameras, notebooks, and computers were, indeed, sitting below everyone’s feet in the basement of 850 Bryant St. and were ready for Carmody to retrieve before the Property Control Department closed at 5 p.m. yesterday. Burke said he had not yet done so.
But that wasn’t the issue. “The concern that we have now is simply what was searched, what copies were retained, if any,” the attorney said.
Carmody and Burke want the warrant to be rescinded. “So we have some understanding what they searched and what they didn’t,” Burke told San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng.
The day saw just about every media outlet in San Francisco huddled around the door of Department 22 in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice before the hearing began. It was the latest movement in the symphony of intrigue sparked by the sudden death of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
Only hours after Adachi died on Feb. 22, the police report containing lurid details of his final hours had already been improperly leaked. Carmody obtained a copy and sold it to, by his count, three local TV stations. San Francisco Police Department brass on April 18 apologized to Adachi’s survivors for this breach. Also at that hearing, the Public Defender’s office charged that a then-unknown freelance journalist, whom it obliquely likened to “The Nightcrawler,” was hawking the leaked report around town, creating a furor. Three weeks later, a phalanx of SFPD officers took a sledgehammer to Carmody’s door in an attempt to determine who within the department may have directed it to him.
Which brought us to today, where Burke, the lawyer representing Carmody, was arguing that the judge should invalidate the warrant that led to the May 10 seizure of Carmody’s belongings. Following that came a motion by the First Amendment Coalition to unseal the documentation the SFPD filed with Judges Victor Hwang and Gail Dekreon to obtain that warrant.
“Those materials will help explain whether the judges who issued the search warrant understood that the search was at the home office of a journalist,” said David Snyder, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. California’s Shield Law broadly restricts the issuance of warrants for search and seizure of a journalist’s materials.
Yet for all the hype, the cameras, the questions, the impatient rapping on the courtroom door by reporters before the hearing in an 850 Bryant hallway that looked and smelled like a bowling alley from hell, the judge simply set dates for the attorneys to file their respective motions — a hearing date to set a hearing date.
In other words, no decision was made today. Except a court date set for June 10 — and don’t expect a decision to be made then, either. That’s when a future hearing on the merits of the case will be scheduled.
Despite the anticlimax in the courtroom, Carmody’s advocates took the opportunity to press their case in the hallway. First Amendment scholars, media outlets, and, eventually, elected officials have argued that the SFPD’s heavy-handed approach to taking Carmody’s equipment was a breach of press freedom — and, to let it stand would set a terrible precedent.
“What is at stake here,” said Snyder, “is the ability for the Fourth Estate to conduct its Constitutionally protected mission — which is essential to the healthy function of a democracy.”