Prosecutor fined $1,000 for newsroom search in violation of federal law
MISSOURI — In early February a federal District Court in Kansas City ruled that the seizure of a videotape in a television newsroom violated the federal Privacy Protection Act and ordered the county prosecutor to pay $1,000 in damages to the station.
The court ordered Jackson County Prosecutor Claire C. McCaskill to pay damages to WDAF-TV, and also ordered the prosecutor to return the original tape of the incident to the station. However, the court found that the police officers involved in the search were protected by sovereign immunity as state officers.
In August 1994, Kansas City television station WDAF filed a lawsuit against city officials after police arrived in their newsroom to execute a search warrant. The police seized a videotape the station bought from a tourist that showed a man dragging a woman across a street into an apartment building. The woman was later found murdered. The police confiscated the original tape despite the station’s offer to provide police with a copy and the name of the tourist who shot the footage.
The station successfully argued that the seizure violated the federal Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits federal and state law enforcement officials from using a search warrant to remove work product or documentary materials, such as the videotape, from a news organization.
Prosecutors argued that the seizure was justified under the Privacy Protection Act because it was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury and that, if they delayed, the station might have destroyed or altered the tape. The court rejected this argument because these concerns were not mentioned in the application for the search warrant. (Citicasters v. McCaskill; Media Counsel: Sam Colville, Kansas City)
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.