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Attorney general cannot seize reporters' computers

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Confidentiality/Privilege   ·   Oct. 11, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Confidentiality/Privilege   ·   Oct. 11, 2006

Attorney general cannot seize reporters’ computers

  • Pennsylvania Supreme Court says reporters don’t have to turn over their computers to the attorney general’s office.

Oct. 11, 2006  ·   Pennsylvania’s attorney general cannot seize two reporters’ computers despite issuing a subpoena, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas Saylor said that seizing the computers of reporters for the Lancaster County, Pa., Intelligencer Journal would be “unduly intrusive.”

“The subpoena as written was too broad because it asked for the reporters’ hard drives,” said William DeStefano, an attorney for the newspaper. “It was not narrowly tailored so it would not pick up information that is protected under statutory privileges.”

The state attorney general, Tom Corbett, sought the hard drives of reporters as part of a statewide grand jury investigation into leaks to reporters.

In Lancaster County, the investigation focused on whether the county coroner gave Intelligencer Journal reporters his password to a restricted law enforcement Web site. Officials said reporters may have committed crimes if they used the site, which includes non-public information about crimes, without authorization.

In February, Lancaster Newspapers Inc., which publishes the Intelligencer Journal and two other local newspapers, handed over four computers to Corbett’s office in compliance with a subpoena.

The company then sought to quash the subpoena in court. But in March, the state Supreme Court ruled that it had no authority to hear the case because the newspaper had complied with the subpoena and therefore had not been found in contempt of court.

In July, Corbett subpoenaed two additional computers. This time, Lancaster Newspapers refused to turn over the reporters’ hard drives and were found in contempt of a court-ordered subpoena – providing the opportunity to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The newspaper argued that the surrender of the reporters’ entire hard drives to law enforcement would have a chilling effect, hindering the media’s ability to gather news by exposing information about confidential sources.

The court agreed with the newspaper’s stance, ruling that the seizure of the reporters’ computers in this case constituted too broad a search, likening the search of a computer to that of a filing cabinet in which only certain relevant files need be handed over.

“Measures were available to obtain the information subject to the investigation short of outright surrender of the hard drives to the Commonwealth,” Saylor wrote for the court.

This case signals to prosecutors that asking for reporters’ hard drives is too broad, DeStefano said.

However, the court did not rule out the possibility of a neutral third party examining the hard drives and offering relevant information to the investigators.

Corbett will now have the opportunity to revise the subpoena to make the scope of his search of the reporters’ computers more relevant to the investigation. The newspaper could then either attempt to quash the subpoena again or comply with the order.

(In re Twenty-Fourth Statewide Investigating Grand Jury (Petition of Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.), Media Counsel: William DeStefano, Philadelphia)HS

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