SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A nonprofit that advocates for more open and accountable government sued San Francisco Mayor London Breed and city police on Tuesday after failing to get access to records about a controversial police raid on a freelance journalist.
The First Amendment Coalition said in its lawsuit that it is seeking to know who within the police department authorized officers to search the home, office and phones of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody. It also wants to understand the role elected leaders played in a raid that alarmed journalism advocates.
Police investigating the leak of a salacious police report into the February death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi showed up at Carmody’s home and office on May 10 and tried to break down his front gate with a sledgehammer and pickaxe. The officers handcuffed Carmody for six hours before seizing his property.
The open government group filed public records requests seeking details about the raid, but the police department denied its requests. The requests to the mayor’s office “have yielded a smattering of documents that plainly falls far short” of what California and San Francisco law require, the nonprofit said in court documents.
San Francisco judges later quashed five separate search warrants police requested to search Carmody’s home, office and phones and have unsealed four of the five affidavits filed in support of the them after Carmody and the First Amendment Coalition sued.
The judges also nullified the warrants, which were issued by different judges over several months as police continued their investigation, despite California’s shield law, which protects journalists from being compelled to reveal confidential sources and specifically prohibits police searches.
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the affidavits shed light on what went wrong when the judges authorized the search warrants in violation of a shield law that protects journalists from revealing their sources.
“But the question that has not been answered is who is ultimately to blame for this egregious violation of a journalist’s rights,” Snyder said. “We’ll review the lawsuit thoroughly once we’ve been served with it, and we’ll respond accordingly in court.”
John Cote, spokesman for the city attorney’s office that represents the police department and the mayor in the case, said the office will review the lawsuit once it’s served with it. “We’ll respond accordingly in court,” Cote added.
Carmody has worked for decades as a freelance journalist or “stringer,” selling video and interview footage to news outlets.
He said he was given a report into the sudden death of Adachi, which occurred suddenly and was later found to be an accident because of cocaine and alcohol toxicity with heart disease as a contributing factor. Carmody said he did not pay for the report but sold it as part of a package including video and photos to media outlets. He carries a press pass issued by the San Francisco Police Department.
Breed initially defended the searches before backtracking, saying in a tweet that police “went through the appropriate legal process to request a search warrant.” In a follow-up tweet, she said she wanted police to get to the bottom of the leak, but also, she was “not okay with police raids on reporters.”
Police Chief William Scott also initially defended the searches, saying that Carmody had “crossed the line” and conspired with police employees to steal the report. Days later, he acknowledged the searches were probably illegal.