Reno D.A. orders searches of four newsrooms
NEVADA–Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick surprised four Reno newsrooms with search warrants in early January, seeking tapes of interviews with an accused freeway gunman.
Gammick returned unedited videotape seized from KOLO-TV in response to threats from the station’s attorneys that it would file a lawsuit against him under the federal Privacy Protection Act, which is designed to protect newsrooms from searches.
The search warrants sought notes and videotape from jailhouse interviews with Christopher Lee Merritt, a man accused of carrying out a shooting spree on Interstate 80 on the outskirts of Reno. Gammick returned the KOLO videotape on the condition that it be preserved so it can be subpoenaed for his prosecution of Merritt on six counts of attempted murder.
Gammick targeted KOLO-TV, KRNV-TV, KTVN-TV and the Reno Gazette- Journal for newsroom searches after seeing press reports that included statements from Merritt regarding his state of mind during the shootings. Merritt, a 20-year-old from Mankato, Minn., stated in numerous interviews with local reporters that the I-80 shootings were to serve as the inauguration of a cross-country murder spree intended to satirize what he perceives as America’s fascination with violence.
Gammick told Associated Press reporters that he considered such statements evidence and considered the journalists who spoke with Merritt to be witnesses to a crime.
KOLO initially resisted the search warrant served on it because it believed the warrant violated the Privacy Protection Act. When sheriff’s deputies refused to terminate the search, however, the station agreed to turn over the requested videotape and pursue remedies available under the act.
The Privacy Protection Act was passed by Congress in 1980 and prohibits both federal and state officers from searching or seizing ‘work product’ or ‘documentary materials’ in a journalist’s possession. Exceptions are limited and generally allow newsroom searches only when journalists have committed crimes or when materials are needed immediately to prevent death or serious bodily injury.
In addition, documentary materials can be seized if there is reason to believe that they will be destroyed before they can be obtained by subpoena. They can also be seized if a court has ordered disclosure, disclosure subsequently has been refused by the news organization, and all other remedies have been exhausted.
The act allows the news media to file suit after an illegal search and recover the materials seized and, in some cases, monetary damages, including attorney’s fees.
Merritt was arrested in Las Vegas on January 4, about 12 hours after the Interstate 80 incident, and stands accused of shooting and injuring one man and also of shooting at five other vehicles.
KOLO attorney Mark Hinueber said the search warrant sought information available from other sources, because Merritt repeatedly admitted to the shooting spree during broadcast portions of his interviews with Reno television stations and did the same in statements published in the Reno paper, and because the sheriff and the district attorney had themselves videotaped a few of the interviews that included confessions from Merritt.
KOLO, KRNV, and KTVN ultimately provided either the court or their attorneys with the videotapes sought by prosecutors on January 6, while the Reno Gazette-Journal initially avoided complying with the search warrant by agreeing to preserve the notes sought under the warrant. KOLO was the only station to give the videotape directly to Gammick.