Before police officers arrived at a journalist’s San Francisco home with a sledgehammer and a search warrant to investigate a leaked report on the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi, the city force had absorbed weeks of scolding.
Many city politicians believed someone in the department released the report’s sordid details for political reasons. After all, Adachi, who died Feb. 22, was not only an aggressive defense attorney but a police watchdog famous for his public rebukes of misconduct by officers.
In recent weeks, police officials repeatedly apologized to the Board of Supervisors, the public defender’s office and Adachi’s wife. And they launched a criminal probe, vowing to restore trust.
But by raiding freelance videographer Bryan Carmody’s home and office on Friday morning — seizing computers and other items in a bid to find out who leaked the report to Carmody, who then sold it to TV stations — the Police Department has turned a local controversy into a national firestorm.
The action is now the latest test of California’s shield law, which protects journalists from being compelled to identify confidential sources, prompting rebuke from many First Amendment advocates.
“This whole thing is just nuts,” Carmody, 48, said in an interview Monday as he worked to fix the busted front gate of his home in the Outer Richmond neighborhood. “I had no beef with the Police Department, other than they just shut my business down.”
In a sign of how deeply the case has upended city politics, new Public Defender Mano Raju released a statement after the police raid appearing to approve of the department’s actions, saying, “I am pleased that Chief (Bill) Scott and others are keeping their word and working to get to the bottom of it.”
On Monday, though, he offered a clarification, saying, “I have no information regarding the justifications for the search conducted by police. Nothing about this statement should be interpreted as condoning specific police tactics in this matter.”
Many central questions in the saga remain unanswered. While The Chronicle obtained portions of the search warrants written by Sgt. Joseph Obidi that listed more than 60 items seized — including computers, cameras and cell phones — the police affidavit justifying the raid remains under seal.
Obidi filed the statements under what is known as a Hobbs sealing, which judges grant at times to protect the identity of a person, such as a confidential informant. Carmody’s attorney, and others, want to know whether the two San Francisco Superior Court judges who signed off on the warrants, Victor Hwang and Gail Dekreon, knew they were authorizing police to search a journalist’s home.
“The important question is whether they were aware — that’s the critical issue,” said the attorney, Tom Burke, who has represented The Chronicle and its parent company, Hearst Corp., in other cases. He said he wrote a letter to Police Chief Scott and the presiding judge, asking them to return his client’s possessions immediately.
California Shield Law, Evidence Code Section 1070
(a) A publisher, editor, reporter, or other person connected with or employed upon a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, or by a press association or wire service, or any person who has been so connected or employed, cannot be adjudged in contempt by a judicial, legislative, administrative body, or any other body having the power to issue subpoenas, for refusing to disclose, in any proceeding as defined in Section 901, the source of any information procured while so connected or employed for publication in a newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication, or for refusing to disclose any unpublished information obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing of information for communication to the public.
(b) Nor can a radio or television news reporter or other person connected with or employed by a radio or television station, or any person who has been so connected or employed, be so adjudged in contempt for refusing to disclose the source of any information procured while so connected or employed for news or news commentary purposes on radio or television, or for refusing to disclose any unpublished information obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing of information for communication to the public.
(c) As used in this section, “unpublished information” includes information not disseminated to the public by the person from whom disclosure is sought, whether or not related information has been disseminated and includes, but is not limited to, all notes, outtakes, photographs, tapes or other data of whatever sort not itself disseminated to the public through a medium of communication, whether or not published information based upon or related to such material has been disseminated.
1524(g) of the California Penal Code states that “No warrant shall issue for any item or items described in Section 1070 of the Evidence Code.”
A court spokeswoman said the judges could not comment, citing ethical standards. The Police Department would not comment on whether it revealed Carmody was a journalist in its warrant request.
But KQED and the San Francisco Examiner quoted city Supervisor Sandra Fewer as saying she had learned from Chief Scott that the judges were aware Carmody was a member of the media.
An agency spokesman, David Stevenson, wrote in a statement the day of the raid that the actions were “one step in the process of investigating a potential case of obstruction of justice along with the illegal distribution of a confidential police report.”
The case may be complicated by Carmody’s status as a freelancer who was paid by outlets that used his information. While he said he has a press pass issued by the San Francisco Police Department, he is self-employed at a time when the definition of who is a journalist is increasingly murky.
Still, many First Amendment advocates say California’s shield law applies to him; the raid was condemned by the First Amendment Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“The Supreme Court drew a line and it’s, ‘Are you performing as a journalist?’ Not, ‘Are you employed by a journalistic entity?’” said Jim Wagstaffe, a private San Francisco attorney focused on First Amendment issues.
In 2009, Wagstaffe successfully quashed a warrant to search a San Francisco State University student journalist who had witnessed a homicide and taken photos.
“There are gray areas and there are black-and-white areas,” he said. “I understand there are people who post things on Facebook. That’s gray. If it’s their livelihood, if they perform as a journalist, that person is in the black-and-white area, regardless of how they get their paycheck.”
Adachi, who was 59 and one of the nation’s only elected public defenders, collapsed inside an apartment on Telegraph Hill after using cocaine and having dinner with a woman who has not been identified, according to the city medical examiner’s office and the leaked report. The Chronicle obtained a copy of the report, but did not pay for it or get it from Carmody.
Paramedics rushed Adachi to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The medical examiner ruled that he died from complications of cocaine and alcohol use, along with heart disease.
As the news broke, Carmody said in an interview, he tried to figure out where Adachi died, and called his police sources. He’s worked for nearly 30 years as a stringer, a freelance videographer who is only paid if a television station wants to purchase footage he shoots. At night, he listens to police scanners, hoping a story breaks.
The day after Adachi died, he obtained a copy of the police report, which he knew was valuable. Carmody said he did not pay for the report, and would never pay a source.
He said he took it to the Bay Area’s television news affiliates, three of which paid him for it and ran stories, he said. These stories were seen by Adachi’s allies and staff as an effort to smear him, though many of the details in the report were later included in the medical examiner’s public autopsy report.
Supervisor Fewer called a special hearing in April on the leak. Cmdr. Greg McEachern and Capt. William Braconi apologized, calling the release “totally inappropriate” and saying they were investigating.
Deputy Public Defender Hadi Razzaq testified at the hearing as well, revealing he’d spoken to a reporter for KRON-TV, who “told me that the story of what happened was developing because a police report related to Jeff Adachi’s death had been offered for sale to news outlets for $2,500 by a stringer.”
Two weeks later, Carmody said, two inspectors with the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau knocked on his door and asked him to reveal his source. When he declined, they came back with the sledgehammer.
Carmody said the raid left him unable to work.
“I’m out several thousand dollars in work and several thousand dollars in equipment,” he said. “I’m going to get my stuff back at some point, but how many months am I not supposed to work?”