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Journalist's Battle With San Francisco Cops Is Getting "Real Fucking Messy"

The police chief is accusing Bryan Carmody of conspiracy — without much explanation.

by David Uberti
May 22 2019, 10:40pm

When San Francisco cops barged into Bryan Carmody’s home on May 10, they claimed to be looking for information about one of the freelance journalist’s confidential sources.

The aggressive raid has sparked a slow-moving scandal in the Bay Area. And now the city’s top cop is ratcheting the whole thing up a notch, targeting Carmody himself for conspiracy — without much explanation.

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon where he repeatedly contradicted himself, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said investigators are probing whether Carmody actively aided the theft of a police report on Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s mysterious February death. Conspiring to help a source steal a document would go beyond normal reporting techniques protected by a web of state and federal laws.

“We believe that in order for this to be successfully pulled off, there had to be some contact between an SFPD employee and Mr. Carmody,” Scott said. “We believe that contact, that interaction, went across a line. It went past just doing your job as a journalist. I understand journalists can receive reports, and it doesn’t matter if it was stolen or not. Crossing a line is when, we believe, he was a part of that effort to get this report illegally.”

It was the first time police have publicly suggested Carmody is under investigation. National media organizations have rallied behind the freelance journalist to fight the search warrants used to seize his work materials — a tactic rarely used against journalists. And the city’s progressive political establishment has waffled between support for the police and for press freedom.

Scott’s explanation on Tuesday provided scant evidence for the new allegation. He cited Carmody’s reception of the report, which showed lurid details of Adachi’s cocaine-fueled final hours, and his sale of the resulting story to local news outlets. Both are common practices for journalists.

“We are investigating whether the SFPD employees conspired with Mr. Carmody to steal the confidential report and financially profit from it,” said Scott, adding that they hadn’t pinpointed the employees in question.

The police chief appeared to acknowledge Tuesday that his department overstepped by barging into Carmody’s home and office and detaining him for more than six hours. “I’m not here to try to defend it,” Scott said. “There are some lessons to be learned here.”

Yet he did continue to justify the use of search warrants. “We had an investigative theory,” he said. “We had some evidence. And the purpose of a search warrant is to have enough probable cause to further the investigation and determine evidence.”

Carmody, who has not been charged with any crime, vehemently denies that he paid for the report. In an interview with VICE News last week, he said police asked him as much when they first visited his home to inquire about his sourcing on April 11, a month before they’d return to seize his computers, cameras, and other materials.

“If someone sold me the report, then it becomes public corruption. Then it gets real fucking messy.”

“I said absolutely not,” Carmody told VICE News. “If someone sold me the report, then it becomes public corruption. Then it gets real fucking messy.”

The freelance videographer also conveyed the same message to the court on May 17 in sworn testimony obtained by VICE News.

“I did not ask the source to provide me with this document — but when it was provided to me, they insisted that I not reveal their identity,” Carmody said. “I did not pay or provide any compensation whatsoever to this source for providing this report to me — nor did I promise them that I would pay or compensate them in the future in any way.”

The continued confusion has left press freedom advocates clamoring for answers as to why the police department didn’t instead seek a subpoena — a less intrusive legal tool for gathering information.

“We have sworn testimony here on Carmody’s part versus vague after-the-fact justifications by the police chief"

“We have sworn testimony here on Carmody’s part versus vague after-the-fact justifications by the police chief,” said Gabe Rottman, a First Amendment attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Under the facts as set forth in Carmody’s sworn declaration, both California law and the federal Privacy Protection Act would have absolutely barred the search warrants in this case.”

The police chief’s comments Tuesday came hours after the latest hearings in Carmody’s case. A San Francisco Superior Court judge gave police more time to mount their opposition to a motion by free press groups to unseal affidavits used to obtain the two search warrants. Those documents would likely shed light on whether authorities knew Carmody was a journalist before signing off — a potential violation of California law.

The judge also didn’t rule on motions by Carmody’s lawyer, Thomas Burke, to quash the search warrants and return his seized property. While a police attorney said in court on Tuesday that the department will return the materials, Burke told VICE News that he will continue pursuing the motions to protect Carmody from future legal threats. A group of 60 media organizations filed a letter in support of Burke’s motion on Tuesday.

“We want to make sure that there are no copies that the police department has made, and that they don’t get any benefits from improperly searching and seizing this property,” Burke told VICE News. “They could have made copies of his stuff before returning it. I don’t suspect that. But we don’t know the details.”

The next hearings on the motions are slated for June 10. Carmody didn’t immediately responded to VICE News’ request for comment after Scott’s press conference Tuesday. Burke declined to comment further on the record.

The delay ensures that an issue tying San Francisco progressives in knots will continue to drag out. After declaring her support for the raid on Carmody’s home and office last week, Mayor London Breed appeared to backtrack on that position in a convoluted statement on Twitter over the weekend. While Breed believes that the search and seizure were “legal and warranted,” she said, “I’m not OK with police raids on reporters.”

“There’s been a kind of circling of wagons in defense of Adachi, which I understand on a personal level,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, one of the groups that filed a motion to unseal the affidavits used to obtain the search warrants. “But no one is questioning that those facts in the report are true. No one is questioning that those facts are newsworthy. They just don’t like that they were released.”

Cover: San Francisco Chief of Police William Scott answers questions during a news conference Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)