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Court unseals records in iPhone investigation

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  1. Court Access
A media coalition has successfully convinced a court to unseal a search warrant affidavit used to search a journalist's home…

A media coalition has successfully convinced a court to unseal a search warrant affidavit used to search a journalist’s home for evidence about a missing iPhone prototype.

Gizmodo editor and technology blogger Jason Chen had allegedly purchased the next-generation iPhone from Brian Hogan, who had found it at a restaurant where it had been left by an Apple employee. Police obtained a search warrant affidavit for Chen’s home, but the court sealed the affidavit, preventing the media and public from reviewing the officer’s reasoning that led to the search.

The media coalition, comprised of Wired.com, Bloomberg News, CNET, the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, filed a brief asking for the records to be unsealed because the public has a right to access the records and because the order sealing the records did not comply with judicial requirements.

Gawker Media, the owner of the Gizmodo website, had also asked the county authorities to immediately return the computers and servers taken from Chen’s home, arguing that these materials were protected under the reporter’s privilege in the state shield law.

On May 14, San Mateo Superior Court Judge Clifford Cretan ordered the sealed records — the affidavit, the search inventory, and the sealing request and order – to be made available to the public.

The 13-page affidavit describes the chain of events leading up to the search of Chen’s home in detail, including specific information on how Hogan obtained the phone, Hogan’s efforts to sell the phone to Chen, an e-mail exchange between Gizmodo editor Brian Lam and Apple CEO Steve Jobs regarding the return of the phone, and statements on the potential harm to Apple that could result from the loss of the phone.

Notably, Chen’s status as a journalist is never discussed in the affidavit. Instead, he is referred to as a suspect in the matter. Under federal and state law, government authorities are required to use subpoenas, not search warrants, when obtaining evidence from reporters.