Cops raid Gizmodo editor's home over lost iPhone, raise questions of legal search upon journalist

Police raid the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen as part of the investigation over a lost iPhone prototype but may have violated the First Amendment rights of an online journalist in the process.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive

Police raided the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen late Friday, busting down the door to serve a search warrant that suggests that the site's role in obtaining an iPhone prototype is being investigated as a felony, according to a post and documents published on the Gizmodo website.

The search, which reeks of violating journalists' protections against such warrants, involved the seizure of four computers and two servers, among other things, from Chen's home, which doubles as his workplace.

The warrant was approved by a judge in San Mateo County, home of the bar where Apple software engineer Gray Powell lost a prototype of Apple's yet-to-be-revealed next iPhone. Cupertino, which is home to Apple HQ, is in neighboring Santa Clara County. Chen lives in Alameda County, which is just across the bay from San Mateo County.

The warrant alleges that the property seized was "used as the means of committing a felony" and "tends to show that a felony has been committed or that a particular person has committed a felony." In addition, in a description of property to be seized, the warrants reads:

All records and data located and/or stored on any computers, hard drives, or memory storage devices, located at the listed location including digital photographs and/or video of the Apple prototype 4G iPhone, email communications pertaining to the sale of photographs of the prototype phone and/or the sale of the physical prototype 4G Apple iPhone, internet history, cache files, and/or Internet pages pertaining to searches and/or research conducted on Apple employee Gray Powell, call records, contact lists, text messages related to the sale of photographs of the prototype iPhone and/or physical prototype iPhone and indicia that identifies the owner and/or operators of the computer or electronic device.

But hold on just one second there.

Chen is a journalist - and that immediately puts the validity of the warrant into murky waters. In the legal response to the warrant issued by Gawker, the parent company of Gizmodo, the company is calling for immediate return of the items seized, saying that they fall into the protections granted to journalists.

In countless legal cases, law enforcement officials and courts have tried to get journalists to reveal their sources in the name of justice - even going so far as to jail them for failing to comply with court orders. The very idea that law enforcement officials would break down the door of a journalist to obtain information about a protected source goes against the heart of the First Amendment and protections granted to members of the press.

It's also worth noting that the search, conducted in the evening hours, was conducted with a warrant did not approve a "Night Search."

Clearly, Apple's lawyers are a powerful force in the San Francisco Bay Area and someone - obviously other than Gray Powell - needs to pay for revealing Apple's forthcoming update to the iPhone. But there are processes and procedures in the judicial system and law enforcement officials should not be allowed to break into an editor's home while he's at dinner with his wife in order to seize property that would spit in the face of such protections.

What's especially troubling is that the judge who signed the search warrant failed to recognize that Chen is an established journalist and protected under the law. Law enforcement officials need to keep their hands off of the communications and files protected under Chen's First Amendment rights and return these computers and servers immediately.

Editorial standards