|NMU||CALIFORNIA||Confidentiality/Privilege||May 3, 2002|
Investigators with search warrant close newsroom for three hours
- Officials from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office wanted to know who paid for a newspaper ad, but they ended up not searching the building when publishers agreed to turn over the billing information.
The newsroom and business offices of the Metropolitan News Co. in Los Angeles were shut down for three hours May 2 when investigators from the district attorney’s office entered with a search warrant and ordered everybody out.
The closure stopped work on the company’s newspapers, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise and the Los Angeles Bulletin. It delayed publication of the Bulletin, an afternoon newspaper, said co-publisher Roger Grace.
Investigators wanted to know who placed an ad on Feb. 21 in the Metropolitan News-Enterprise regarding the circulation of a petition for a recall election in the city of South Gate, said Jane Robison, press secretary for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.
The search warrant sought billing records that would show that a local law firm placed the ad. The search warrant was part of an ongoing investigation into political corruption in that city, Robison said.
Robison said the search warrant was limited to business records and had nothing to do with reporter’s notes or other newsgathering documents.
But Grace said an official from the district attorney’s office threatened to search the entire office, including reporters’ desks. The search warrant states that the search would include “all rooms, safes, locked boxes, desks” and “any containers including purses and wallets found in the care/custody and/or control of advertisement, accounts receivable, editing and/or any office. . . . ”
Investigators did not search the offices, Grace and Robison said. Instead, Grace’s wife and co-publisher, Jo-Ann Grace, turned over the documents when investigators correctly named the law firm that had placed the ad.
“Our reason for resistance was that we wanted to protect the privacy interest of the customer,” Roger Grace said. “If they already knew the name of the customer, there was no privacy interest to protect.”
Jo-Ann Grace had told investigators several weeks earlier that she and her husband would not reveal the identity of the customer unless the district attorney’s office obtained a subpoena or showed that it already knew the name of the law firm that placed the ad.
“To go to the extreme measure of getting a search warrant with the contemplation of searching the newsroom was rash and irresponsible and extreme and outrageous,” Roger Grace said.
Robison said investigators could not issue a subpoena. California law allows subpoenas only when a case has been filed, she said. While charges have been filed against one South Gate official, the ongoing investigation involves other people against whom no charges have been filed, she said.
Roger Grace said he might file a lawsuit claiming violation of his civil rights.
The search might also have violated state law. California law forbids search warrants for items described in the state’s shield law, which protects reporters from forced disclosure of unpublished information. The law defines “unpublished information” as information that includes, but is not limited to, notes, outtakes, photographs, tapes or other data.
Robison said “unpublished information” does not include a bill for an ad. She said the search warrant was legal.
“If this violated state law, we wouldn’t have gotten a search warrant, and the judge would not have signed it,” she said. “We’re not in the business of violating state law. We’re in the business of upholding it.”
Roger Grace believes the district attorney’s office acted irresponsibly.
“I think he owes us one large-sized apology,” he said.
© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press