Amid national outcry, San Francisco Police Chief William Scott is on his heels after raiding a reporter’s home for refusing to disclose the name of a source. On Tuesday, Scott held a news conference to say he suspects freelance reporter Bryan Carmody was involved in a criminal conspiracy to obtain documents that were leaked to him by someone inside the police department.
“Our actions reflect that we believe Mr. Carmody was a suspect in a criminal conspiracy to steal this confidential report,” Scott said at a news conference, referring to a police report on the death of prominent public defender Jeff Adachi.
But Scott struggled with squaring the accusation with protections of the First Amendment and state laws, which shield reporters who gather leaked government documents for news operations — a routine activity in the profession. Scott said only Carmody received and distributed the report.
To obtain the report, Scott said, the department believes Carmody was in contact with a police official. But he declined questions about how those actions eclipsed the typical role of a freelance reporter who sells videos, additional reporting and documents to local outlets, such as Carmody did in this case.
Carmody “went past doing [his] job as a journalist,” Scott said. Police are investigating whether Carmody paid a source for the document. Carmody has told The Washington Post he does not pay sources.
The raid and seizure of documents and equipment have prompted waves of concern among free speech advocates and the public that police overstepped clear laws meant to protect journalists.
“There is an ongoing, deep misunderstanding of the city government about what reporters do, and why it’s protected under the U.S. Constitution,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit speech advocacy group.
On May 10, officers bashed in Carmody’s door with a sledgehammer, handcuffed Carmody, 49, and took hard drives, phones and other documents, including the report. That raid came two weeks after Carmody declined to tell investigators who provided him the report.
“We know that looks bad,” Scott said about the sledgehammer use. “I’m not here to try to defend” the raid.
Carmody, a freelance “stringer,” was identified by Scott as a reporter, though he declined to answer a question at the conference about whether his profession was listed in the search warrant signed by a judge.
Thomas Burke, an attorney for Carmody, said he looked forward to the warrant being unsealed. The First Amendment Coalition filed a motion to unseal it.
Scott said his office did not consult with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón during the warrant process. “That communication would have been helpful,” Scott conceded.
Gascón said Tuesday that his office had not seen the warrant or the facts that support it. “But absent a showing that a journalist broke the law to obtain the information that police are looking for, I can’t imagine a situation in which a search warrant would be appropriate,” he wrote on Twitter.
The police department and Gascón’s office did not return a request for comment asking whether investigators submitted the copies of the warrant to the D.A.'s office, which appears to be a requirement under the department’s general orders.
The two Superior Court judges who each signed a search warrant for Carmody’s home and office, Victor Hwang and Gail Dekreon, did not previously respond to questions sent to court spokeswoman Megan Filly. She said they were prohibited by state code from commenting on a pending case.
News media associations, among them the Society of Professional Journalists and Radio Television Digital News Association, have condemned the police action.
“It is inherently troubling,” said Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer. “Why did they get a search warrant instead of doing what I’m confident they would have done had he worked for the local newspaper” — gotten a subpoena.
Carmody, 49, occupies a small corner of the industry, working every night from about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to chase news as it comes across police scanners.
He then sells photos, videos and interview footage to TV stations for their morning broadcasts. He told The Post that he sold his work on the Adachi death report for far less than the $2,500 that has been suggested by Scott.