San Francisco police chief stands by decision to raid journalist's home

Police raided a journalist's home last week as part of an investigation into who in the department leaked a report on a public defender's death


Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO  — San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott on Wednesday stood by the decision to raid a journalist's home last week as part of an investigation into who in his department leaked a report on the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

At the weekly meeting of the city Police Commission, Scott addressed Friday's search of freelance videographer Bryan Carmody's home and office, an action that has become a national controversy and drawn rebuke from First Amendment groups.

"We have to do our jobs and make sure reports are not released when they are not supposed to be released," Scott said. "If there's criminal activity that's proven, we want to get to the bottom of that."

But by executing a no-knock warrant at Carmody's home and office and seizing his property, First Amendment groups said police may have violated California's shield law that protects journalists from being compelled to identify confidential sources. The shield law, attorneys and advocates said, applies to freelancers.

Carmody, 48, said he has a press pass issued by the San Francisco Police Department.

Scott avoided or refused to answer many questions about the particulars of the investigation and the decision for the raid, but said, "We went through the legal process and the appropriate legal process for a criminal investigation."

Carmody obtained the police report from an unnamed source and said he sold it to three television stations, which he said is how he makes a living. The report was written by an officer from Central Station the day after Adachi's death on Feb. 22, and included a two page summary of the incident along with 22 photos.

Television and print news stories revealed many of the details shortly after Adachi died, including that he collapsed at a Telegraph Hill apartment with a woman who was not his wife. The Chronicle also obtained a copy of the report, but did not get it from Carmody or pay for it.

Adachi died from a mix of cocaine and alcohol along with heart disease, according to a public report from the city medical examiner's office, released two months after his death.

The leak drew outrage from some city officials, who considered its release an attempt to smear the late public defender -- who had a history of battling police misconduct. San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer called a special hearing in April, demanding an investigation.

"We are committed to maintaining the public's trust," Scott said Wednesday. "This leak was a breach of the public trust and I understand that and we're investigating that leak fully, including allegations of misconduct, potentially by members of the San Francisco Police Department."

He declined to answer a question about whether he thought raiding a journalist's home may damage public trust. Many questions remain about why police chose to search Carmody's property and seize more than 60 items -- including computers, phones and hard drives -- as part of an internal investigation into its own department. Police did not consult the district attorney's office when applying for the warrant, Scott said.

To obtain a search warrant, police must be investigating the target of the search for a crime, according to legal experts. Scott on Wednesday said: "The search warrant represents a step in the process of investigating a criminal case of a criminal incident and the illegal distribution of a confidential leaked report."

Two judges signed off on the warrants and Scott said he is "confident we took the appropriate legal matters to get the search authorized."

Police, though, filed the warrants under seal, so it is not clear how they described Carmody's job or if they disclosed that he is a journalist in statements of probable cause. The judges, Victor Hwang and Gail Dekreon, have not commented.

Earlier this month two inspectors with the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau showed up at Carmody's home asking him to reveal his source, he said. When he declined, they returned Friday morning with a sledgehammer and smashed the front gate of his home.

As the case has drawn national attention amid a larger discussion over freedom of the press, many in San Francisco appear caught between their feelings over Adachi and typically progressive values like press freedom.

Fewer appeared to support the raid earlier this week, calling Carmody's actions "illegal" before admitting she is "not a legal expert." Obtaining leaked documents is common practice for journalists and is not illegal.

The public defender's office on Friday released a statement saying it was "pleased that Chief Scott and others are keeping their word and working to get to the bottom of it." On Monday, the office walked the comment back before posting a longer statement Wednesday.

"The Office of the Public Defender does not condone or support excessive police actions ever," the statement said. "We regularly see the fear, trauma and lasting damage to our indigent clients -- largely black and brown people -- when the police execute warrants by breaking down doors, flashing guns, and handcuffing occupants. To the extent Mr. Carmody experienced such treatment, we support his efforts to seek redress."

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©2019 San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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