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Jillian Shriner v. Superior Court of San Bernardino County

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

Court: California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two

Date Filed: Dec. 23, 2020

Background: On Nov. 25, 2020, serial killer Samuel Little subpoenaed journalist Jillian Lauren Shriner, requiring her to disclose unpublished communications with her sources. The subpoena was tied to the prosecution of Little in connection with the murder of a woman in San Bernardino, California.

Shriner spent more than three years investigating cold cases and building rapport with Little. As a result of that rapport, Little confessed to Shriner to dozens of murders that he committed over the course of four decades. Her reporting on those confessions helped inform the public about Little’s murders and explain how the serial killer evaded law enforcement for so long.

A trial court in California compelled Shriner to comply with the subpoena. The journalist then filed an emergency appeal of the trial court’s order with the California Court of Appeal on Dec. 23, and the Reporters Committee filed an application to submit an amicus brief in support of her on the same day, which included the proposed amicus brief.

The next day, the California Court of Appeal stayed the trial court’s contempt order and granted the Reporters Committee’s application.

On Dec. 30, Little died at a Los Angeles-area hospital, rendering the criminal case against him and the subpoena battle effectively moot, although the appellate court had not yet dismissed the case, as of the time of publication.

Our Position: Before the subpoena became moot, RCFP argued that the appeals court must reverse the trial court’s order requiring Shriner to disclose her unpublished communications with sources.

  • The California Constitution and Evidence Code protect journalists from compelled disclosure of any “unpublished information” to ensure the free flow of information to the public.
  • Reporters rely on confidential communications with sources to report the news.
  • Compelling journalists to divulge confidential or nonconfidential communications with sources chills newsgathering and deprives the public of important information.
  • The California shield laws’ protections do not disappear simply because a journalist cultivates a source using methods aimed at developing trust and obtaining information for dissemination to the public.
  • Journalists have employed a variety of tactics to build rapport with sources — particularly when dealing with violent or dangerous people such as serial killers.

The Reporters Committee learned about this case after Shriner contacted our legal hotline. Reporters Committee attorneys helped her find counsel with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. Michael Dore at GDC represents Shriner.

Quote: “The compelled disclosure of Ms. Shriner’s unpublished communications with sources in this matter would threaten her ability to engage in newsgathering activity that is of critical importance to the public — helping investigate and shed light on murders committed by Mr. Little.”

Related: In June, the Reporters Committee urged a state court in Washington to quash subpoenas that the Seattle Police Department served to five news organizations requiring them to turn over all unedited footage and photographs taken in a several block radius over a 90-minute period during a protest in May. The police department later abandoned its efforts to enforce the subpoenas.

In 2019, the Reporters Committee and 59 media organizations urged a California court to order the immediate return of San Francisco journalist Bryan Carmody’s protected work product, documentary materials and newsgathering equipment that were seized by San Francisco police. The court later nullified all of the search warrants, deeming them illegal under California’s shield law, which allows journalists to protect confidential sources and materials.

In 2018, the Reporters Committee and 19 news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting reporter Jamie Kalven’s motion to quash a subpoena requiring him to testify about his sources in a case in which three Chicago police officers faced charges for allegedly conspiring to obstruct justice in the investigation of fellow a former officer who shot and killed a Black teenager in 2014.

For more information about shield laws in each state and federal circuit, check out the Reporters Committee’s Reporter’s Privilege Compendium.