NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · CALIFORNIA · Confidentiality/Privilege · July 19, 2005
Settlement reached in 2002 newsroom search
July 19, 2005 · A lawsuit over an allegedly illegal search of a newspaper’s building will be dropped in exchange for a $40,000 settlement from Los Angeles County and changes to the District Attorney’s Office guidelines concerning searches of media-owned businesses.
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley agreed to update his office’s guidelines to include a reference to the federal Privacy Protection Act, which says that a warrant may not be issued to search a newspaper office unless the search falls into one of several extreme exceptions, such as protecting national security or against imminent loss of life.
Metropolitan News-Enterprise sued Cooley in 2002 after 11 armed investigators arrived at the newsroom with a warrant to search for certain billing records in an investigation into allegations of corruption by the city of South Gate, Calif. Although the entire staff was ordered out of the building and business was halted for three hours, the newsroom was not actually searched because Roger and Jo-Ann Grace, the newspaper’s publishers, agreed to hand over the billing records. The publishers had told the prosecutor in a conversation two weeks earlier that they would release the records if the prosecutor correctly identified the law firm that placed the legal notice, reasoning that if officials already knew the name then their customer did not have a privacy interest at stake.
“The records were turned over on May 2, 2002, once my wife and I realized that the investigators did already know the identity of the law firm,” Roger Grace said. “They didn’t need a search warrant to get the records — we would have supplied them two weeks earlier in response to them correctly identifying the law firm. What we were not willing to do was to surrender records in response to a search warrant which we regarded as oppressive, extreme, and offensive.”
The newspaper’s lawsuit sought a declaration that the search violated the Privacy Protection Act, as well as damages for trespass, interference with business operations and violation of civil rights.
Under the settlement, Los Angeles County will pay the newspaper $40,000, and Cooley will update his office guidelines to include a reference to the Federal Privacy Protection Act. Although the settlement was signed in June, it was not disclosed until Tuesday because it had not yet been approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Claims.
“Cooley’s recognition now of the need to comply with the statute . . . as evidenced by his agreement to insert references to them in his office guidelines on newsroom searches, will prevent a recurrence of the conduct that took place three years ago,” Roger Grace said in a statement.
(Metropolitan News Company v. Cooley; Media counsel: Lisa Grace-Kellogg and Roger M. Grace, Los Angeles) — AG