A surprise police search of a news organization that isn't a suspect in a crime violates the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of the press, the Supreme Court was told yesterday.
Police seeking evidence in a newsroom must give the news organization notice and opportunity to raise a judicial challenge, Jerome B. Falk Jr. argued in behalf of Stanford University's student newspaper.
For the city of palo Alto, however, California Deputy Attorney General W. Eric Collins contended that the police offciers who rummaged through the offices of The Stanford Daily had complied with the Constitution by persuading a magistrate that he had probable cause to issue a search warrant.
The officers should not have been required to forgo a search warrant that enabled them to catch the newspaper by surprise in favor of advance notice in the form of a subpoena that the paper could have sought to quash, he argued.
The case dates back to April, 1971, when demonstrators occupied offices of the stanford University Hospital. Nine people officers were injured in trying to remove them.
The officers were able to identify only two of several assailants. After the student newspaper published photos of the encounter, the policemen though they could identify more of the attackers by examination the paper's film negatives and unpublished photos. THe Santa Clara County district attorney's officer then secured a warrant for an immediate search of the newsroom.
Four policemen made a search that lasted about 15 minutes. They examined the photo lab, file cabinets, desks and wastepaper baskets. They were dential interviews. Whether the officers read or scanned written marterials is disputed.
Later, the paper filed a civil lawsuit against the police chief and others. A federal judge and then the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the warrant. The appellate court said a newsroom search "presents an overwhelming threat to the press's authority to gather and disseminate news."
The ruling was especially troubling to the Justice Department and others, however. They felt it went beyond the remedy sought by the newspaper to say that when law enforcement officials seek a search warrant for materials possessed by a non-press "third party" not suspected of a crime, they must have probable cause to believe that a subpoena would be impracticable.
Yesterday, however, Justice John Paul Stevens said the issue to be decided involves "nothing else" than the newspaper.
the case has pitted a dozen national press organizations - including publishers broadcasters, editors, and unions - against law enforcement groups, including the National District Attorney Assocition.
The press doesn't claim "an absolute privilege to withhold information," the news organizations said in a friend-of-the-court brief that terms the case "of extreme importance to the press and to all of us who benefit from freedom of the press."
Instead, the brief said, the press seeks "the modest assurance" that law enforcers wanting to seize material from the media "follow procedures that gives advance notice and an opportunity to contest the seizure in court, on Frist Amendment and other grounds."
In a last-minute friend-of-the-courtbrief filed Saturday, the Justice Department generally sided with the prosecutors. Traditional Fourth Amendment protections in a magistrate's review of a sworn application for authority to search "are the only ones mandated by the Constitution for safeguard First Amendment freedoms in the Warrant process," Solicitor General Wade H. McCree wrote.