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Police seized news crew’s tape in early morning search of hotel room

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Police seized news crew's tape in early morning search of hotel room 08/09/1994 WASHINGTON -- Spokane police in late July…

WASHINGTON — Spokane police in late July seized and copied a news crew’s videotape during an early morning search of a CBS producer’s hotel room.

Several Spokane officials sent letters of apology to CBS, and a state district court issued an order requiring officials to return the tape to CBS.

CBS said in a statement that it appreciates the apologies, but the “matter will remain open” and it considers its “fundamental rights” violated until it receives the copied tape and any transcripts of it.

City Manager Roger Crum said the incident has caused the city to revise its policy regarding search warrants. Future searches on the media will not be carried out until two or three “higher authorities” — the manager, city attorney and chief of police — are consulted, the Associated Press reported.

A CBS news crew was in Spokane to do a story about a lawsuit against the city and county of Spokane. Members of the Marks family and the Gypsy Church of the Northwest had filed the $40 million suit, claiming police violated their civil rights during searches at two of the Markses’ homes in 1986, AP reported.

As the news crew filmed an interview with Marks family members, a family member called and made “life-threatening remarks,” according to City Manager Roger Crum’s report on the incident.

Later in the day, police responded to a 911 call and found a Marks family member “out in the street talking agitatedly with a small crowd while being filmed by the CBS crew,” the report said.

When things quieted, police left. They returned quickly, however, in response to several 911 calls, and found injured Marks family members, the report said.

People at the scene said that once the police had left, three cars came, people got out and sprayed Mace at and beat the family members. The victims said the CBS crew had filmed some of the event, the report said.

Marks family members told Assistant City Attorney Rocco Treppiedi that he should look at the CBS tape to identify the attackers, the report said.

Treppiedi claims that he called CBS producer Karen Schaeffer at her hotel that night and asked to view and copy the tape, the report said.

“That is wrong,” said CBS Vice-President Joe Peyronnin. “Treppiedi never asked Karen Schaeffer for a copy of the tape. The only question he asked is `to whom do I address the subpoena?'”

Schaeffer agreed to discuss the matter with Treppiedi at 9 a.m. the next day, Peyronnin said.

But Treppiedi learned that one of the crew members was leaving town around 7 a.m. the next day and grew concerned that the person might take the tape, police reports said.

To get the tape, Treppiedi obtained a warrant, which said the tape was evidence for three crimes being investigated: assault, trespass and intimidation of a witness.

Treppiedi and six officers arrived at the Sheraton Hotel around 4 a.m. An officer told Schaeffer that he had a warrant to search the crew’s rooms, but he would not have to if Schaeffer gave him a copy of the tape. Schaeffer said she could not comply without speaking to “her boss,” police reports said.

After 45 minutes, Schaeffer had made several calls but was still waiting for a call from her lawyer. Police said they would wait no longer to begin the search. They searched Schaeffer’s room and had begun to search another crew member’s room when Schaeffer’s lawyer called, police reports said.

The lawyer talked with Treppiedi and the two agreed that Schaeffer would make a copy of the tape at KREM-TV, police reports said. The crew retained the original tape.

A CBS statement said the police department’s actions “were highly inappropriate and unreasonable and may have violated federal law.”

In a letter to the city attorney and city manager, Treppiedi said obtaining a warrant instead of a subpoena was appropriate because the Marks family was in danger. Pursuing a subpoena might have allowed the CBS reporter to leave town with the tape, which would have prevented police from using “the critical evidence for several days, possibly longer.”

Mayor Jack Geraghty, City Council Member Chris Anderson, and City Manager Roger Crum each wrote a letter of apology to CBS. Mayor Geraghty wrote: “the subpoena process certainly would have been more appropriate.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.