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Search warrant for TV station's videotape suspended

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Search warrant for TV station's videotape suspended 07/01/96 PENNSYLVANIA--The Lebanon County district attorney in late June obtained a search warrant…

Search warrant for TV station’s videotape suspended

07/01/96

PENNSYLVANIA–The Lebanon County district attorney in late June obtained a search warrant to search for and seize unaired footage of an interview from a Lancaster television station.

A judge vacated the search warrant and ordered another hearing after attorneys for the station asserted that the warrant violated the federal Privacy Protection Act. The district attorney said he would not pursue the search warrant, but would seek a subpoena of the material once charges are filed.

On June 20, District Attorney Brad Charles obtained a search warrant to seize a videotape from WGAL-TV News that contains unaired footage of an interview with a woman who was involved in a car accident in which four children, including one of her own, were killed. During the portion of the interview that aired, the woman admitted to smoking marijuana the day before the accident and said that her car was in bad condition.

A videotape of the story as broadcast on WGAL-TV News was voluntarily turned over to the district attorney’s office. Nevertheless, state troopers appeared at the newsroom to execute the warrant for the unaired footage. Dan Weiser, the station’s assistant news director, asked for time to contact WGAL-TV’s attorneys.

At a hearing before the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas on June 21, WGAL-TV’s attorneys protested that the warrant was improper under the federal Privacy Protection Act. The act, in most cases, forbids federal, state and local law enforcement officers from conducting searches and seizures of work product and documentary materials of reporters, broadcasters and authors.

After reviewing the act, Judge Louis Farina vacated the search warrant and scheduled a hearing for June 26.

Although he will not pursue the matter, the district attorney maintains that the newsroom search is legal.

“Our position is that a lawfully executed search warrant was obtained, and there is no justification whatsoever of withholding valid evidence of a potential crime,” Charles told the Lebanon Daily News. He has also asked the judge to order the station to preserve the videotape. (In Re Search Warrant Application; Media Counsel: Benjamin Litman, St. Louis)