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Police unlawfully seize, then return, newsroom documents

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   ALASKA   ·   Confidentiality/Privilege   ·   July 13, 2006

Police unlawfully seize, then return, newsroom documents

  • Unaware of a federal law restricting newsroom seizures, Anchorage police executed two warrants and seized photos and video of a weekend shooting, returning the materials after a newspaper attorney objected.

July 13, 2006  ·   Anchorage police, armed with unlawful search warrants, seized from two newsrooms Wednesday unpublished photos and a video taken at a crime scene, the Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.

Police returned the photos, taken at the scene of a Sunday night shooting at the Anchorage Football Stadium, after learning from a media lawyer that a federal law prohibits such seizures from newsrooms. A video seized from KTVA-TV also was returned.

Under the “Privacy Protection Act of 1980,” government officers investigating a crime cannot search or seize any work product materials of a newspaper or broadcast station, unless the person possessing the materials is believed to have committed the criminal offense in question, or seizing the materials is necessary to protect against death or serious bodily injury.

Police officials told the Daily News that they may try to subpoena the photographs and video, which they are seeking in the investigation of a shooting that left a man hospitalized. The images could help identify who was present during the pick-up football game where the shooting took place, Deputy Police Chief Ross Plummer told the paper.

The newspaper’s editor said it will resist a subpoena for unpublished photos.

“Because of intense interest in this event, we’ve published an extraordinary number of photographs from the shooting,” Patrick Dougherty told the newspaper. “All of those photos have been offered to police — without a search warrant or a subpoena. I have made clear to police there is no information available in unpublished photos that isn’t available in the published ones.” KTVA News Director Staci Feger told the Daily News that detectives were not asking for any material that had not aired and thus the station will not contest a subpoena for the video if served with one.

Dougherty offered detectives all 39 images the paper put on its Web site,, Tuesday night, according to the newspaper’s account.

Dougherty said that as a part of the community, the newspaper shares an interest in solving crimes.

“But, like almost all newspapers, the Daily News has a policy against providing unpublished material — whether it is notes, photographs, documents or tape recordings — to any external agencies or individuals,” Dougherty told the paper. “That policy allows our journalists to gather information we can deliver to the public, including the police. Without that ability, we cannot fulfill our First Amendment responsibility. It’s a principle we must defend, and can defend in this case without preventing police from doing their job.”

No one initially involved in the seizure — police, the judge who issued the warrant or newspaper officials — were immediately aware of the federal law, and Dougherty provided all 160 published and unpublished images on a DVD when detectives served the search warrant, the newspaper reported. After he contacted the newspaper’s attorney, John McKay, McKay spoke to the judge who signed the warrant, and the judge directed the detectives to return the photos and video, Dougherty told the Daily News.


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