Freedom of the Press Concerns Raised After SFPD Raid on Journalist's Home Over Leaked Report

3 min
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi was memorialized at City Hall on March 4, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

A San Francisco freelance journalist whose home and office were raided by police is threatening legal action against the San Francisco Police Department if his belongings are not returned.

Journalist Bryan Carmody's lawyer Thomas Burke on Monday wrote in a letter to SFPD Chief William Scott that police illegally confiscated his client's cameras and other equipment during a raid on Friday, even though they had search warrants.

Police were looking for information connected to what they say is the illegal release of a police report connected to public defender Jeff Adachi's death in February.

The report contained salacious details about the hours leading up to Adachi's death. Carmody obtained the police report from a confidential source and then sold the information to several news outlets.

Carmody said San Francisco police officers used a "sledgehammer" to attempt to break down the security gate in front of his door on Friday morning. The officers then searched his entire home with their guns pulled and put Carmody into handcuffs before transporting him to his office, which they also searched, he said. Carmody was detained for more than five hours before being released.

According to a statement from the SFPD, the search warrant was executed as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the report's release.

"The citizens and leaders of the city of San Francisco have demanded a complete and thorough investigation into this leak," the SFPD said in a statement. "We are committed to maintaining the public’s trust, investigating any allegations of misconduct and holding those responsible for such acts accountable."

Carmody, known as a "stringer" who takes photos of news events and alerts news outlets to those events, provided KQED with a copy of the search warrant and the receipt of a list of electronics that were taken from his property by the police.

The warrant was signed by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Victor Hwang, who was elected in 2016. He previously served as a public defender, a prosecutor and a member of the San Francisco Police Commission.

Records show police seized an SFPD police report, flash drives, computers, cellphones, cameras and checks from TV stations.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi's Death
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The raid has raised concern over freedom of the press.

"It was unlawful and frankly pretty outrageous," said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

According to Snyder, the raid violates the California Shield Law, which bars law enforcement from compelling journalists to give up confidential sources, even if the source gave the journalist information that was obtained illegally.

"Somewhere along the line the judge either was not made aware that Carmody is a journalist or he decided to disregard that," Snyder said.

A statement issued Sunday by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists also condemned the raid.

"While there may be legitimate questions on the circumstances surrounding the reporting of Adachi's death, the seizure of any journalist's notes or other reporting materials sets a dangerous precedent," the chapter's Freedom of Information Committee said in a statement. The committee is seeking more information on the raid.

According to Carmody, he is well known to the SFPD as a journalist. He said he has a valid SFPD press credential and used to work with the department's director of strategic communications, David Stevenson, when Stevenson worked at KTVU.

"This is not news to [the SFPD] that I am a journalist," Carmody said.

He added that several weeks before the raid, he was contacted by San Francisco police officers and asked to give up his source voluntarily. He did not agree to do so.

According to Carmody, the officers then asked him what he would do if a federal grand jury subpoenaed him.

"All of our criminal justice and city hall leaders agree that the release of police reports in this fashion is wrong. I am pleased that Chief Scott and others are keeping their word and working to get to the bottom of it," said Manohar "Mano" Raju, the appointed city public defender succeeding Adachi, in a statement.

Raju clarified that statement on Monday, adding "Nothing about this statement should be interpreted as condoning specific police tactics in this matter."

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San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said on Monday that she believes the warrants were justified because, as a stringer, Carmody only sells video footage and information to news organizations.

"I don't know if he met the threshold of a journalist because he doesn't really write the report,” Fewer said.

Fewer added that, according to a conversation she had Monday afternoon with SFPD Chief Scott, the judges who granted the search warrants were made aware of Carmody’s occupation.

Adachi died unexpectedly on Feb. 22 at age 59 in a North Beach apartment. A police report soon surfaced detailing the investigation into Adachi's death, complete with photos of the apartment.

According to the city's medical examiner report, Adachi died due to a combination of cocaine, alcohol and pre-existing heart problems.

The official cause of death is "acute mixed drug toxicity with cocaine and ethanol, with hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease as a contributing factor."

According to the medical examiner's report, Adachi's blood contained small amounts of cocaine and alcohol at levels consistent with Adachi having taken them some time on the day of his death.

"The heart, with a significant amount of coronary artery disease and fibrosis already present, would have worked even harder with stimulant substances such as ethanol and cocaine in Mr. Adachi's system," the report says.

Mayor London Breed (Left) and Mutsuko Adachi (wife of Jeff Adachi, Right) mourn the loss of late Public Defender Jeff Adachi at City Hall in San Francisco on March 4, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

The release of the information was painful for Adachi's family.

During a hearing held in April to look into the leaking of the report, Adachi's widow, Mutsuko Adachi, fighting back tears, said: "It was despicable what the police did to myself and my daughter ... We had no privacy. It was an ongoing investigation, and I don't believe that they should have released it.

To say that it doesn't affect the family is an understatement. It's incredibly painful to have the police department do this to you."

Police Cmdr. Greg McEachern offered an apology to Adachi's family and said the department was conducting its own investigation, adding that anyone found responsible would be held accountable.

Supervisor Fewer had called for the hearing to look into the policies the police department has in place for the release of private information.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen called the leaked report "disgusting."

This story was originally published May 11 and has been updated.

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