San Francisco police raid journalist’s home, looking for information on his sources, later apologize

On May 24, 2019, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) apologized for carrying out a potentially illegal raid on journalist Bryan Carmody’s home two weeks earlier. The SFPD said it had been searching for information on the source of a leaked incident report on the death of prominent San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Carmody had refused to reveal his source. 

Key Players

Bill Scott is the San Francisco chief of police. According to CNN, he conceded that the raid may have violated the California shield law, which protects journalists from investigations into their sources. 

Bryan Carmody is an independent journalist and cameraman. He was held in custody while his phone, notebooks, camera, and computer were searched on May 10, 2019. According to the California Globe, Carmody routinely films news events and sells footage and other materials to local and national news outlets for use in their reports. The SFPD recognized Carmody as a journalist by issuing him a city-sanctioned press pass early in 2019. 

Jeff Adachi served as San Francisco public defender for 17 years, from 2002 to 2019, the only elected public defender in California. He died Feb. 22, 2019, at the age of 59. Adachi was often credited with having helped turn the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office into one of the country’s best, according to Mission Local, an independent San Francisco-area newspaper. During his tenure, the budget of the Public Defender’s Office more than doubled, SF Weekly reports. In 2015, Adachi successfully defended a Mexican immigrant in the country illegally who was charged in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle on a popular San Francisco pier. In 2018, Adachi secured $1.9 million for immigration lawyers to reunite incarcerated immigrants with their families.

An autopsy performed by the San Francisco city examiner revealed that a combination of cocaine and alcohol caused his already weak heart to give out, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Mission Local added that “Adachi had hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol). He had high blood pressure, revealed by the thickening of his heart muscles. His left anterior descending artery was 70 percent blocked.” Dr. David Farcy, one of several doctors who reviewed Adachi’s autopsy at Mission Local’s request, described Adachi as a “ticking time bomb.” 

Adachi’s widow, Kimiko Burton, claimed that he “had no known medical problems” and “to her knowledge was not taking any medications,” according to Mission Local

Mission Local also provided the account of the friend with whom Adachi reportedly spent much of his final day. She said that, upon consuming “edibles,” Adachi came down with acute abdominal pain after they returned to his apartment. When she offered to take him to the hospital, he declined, saying that such an episode “had happened a few times before and it had resolved on its own.” But this time, after disrobing and falling asleep in his bed, he did not wake up. 

Adachi’s death has been ruled “accidental.”

Further Details

Following Adachi’s death, news reports were published that contained police documents and several crime scene photographs, according to the Globe. After local news outlets began to be criticized for this coverage, San Francisco police named the person who had provided the information to reporters — Carmody — and claimed he was part of a larger conspiracy to obtain and sell stolen material. 

Carmody refused to reveal his sources to police. On May 10, the SFPD raided his home, the culmination of a week of covert surveillance, according to Time magazine. 

The SFPD warrant used to track Carmody and eventually raid his home may have mischaracterized the nature and necessity of the mission, according to ABC7. Authorized by Scott, the warrant never mentioned that Carmody was a journalist or that the phone surveillance and raid had the goal of discovering Carmody’s source. 

Carmody’s counsel told ABC7 that the situation was “an alarming and deeply disturbing attack on the free press in an attempt to unmask Mr. Carmody’s confidential source.”


SFPD internal divisions 

The police chief’s apology and promise to reform police-media relations were publicly lauded, but the San Francisco Police Officers Association has called for his resignation. The organization claims that having originally ordered the raid, Scott is now passing blame to the officers who carried it out. It is unclear whether Scott or other high-ranking officers were provided with incomplete or mischaracterized information on the nature of Carmody’s connection to the Adachi case. 

Judge quashes illegal warrant executed against Carmody

On July 18, 2019, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Rochelle East ruled that a search warrant for Carmody’s phone records should never have been issued. She said that when she initially approved the warrant, police investigators did not inform her that Carmody was a journalist and thereby protected under California’s Shield Law.

“Any information that the police department received as a result of that warrant is to be destroyed, they have to submit an affidavit to me that that was destroyed and it means they can’t use any of it,” said Tom Burke, Carmody’s attorney, to ABC7. 

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, California’s first shield law was passed by lawmakers in 1935. After the scope of the law expanded in the 1960s, the existing shield law provision was written into the state constitution in 1980. Many states enacted shield laws following Branzburg v. Hayes, a 1972 Supreme Court case that defined a more stringent set of requirements for when a journalist could be subpoenaed in court. As of 2019, 49 states and Washington, D.C., offer some form of source protection for journalists, Wyoming being the lone exception. Forty states and D.C. have passed their own shield laws, but none exists at the federal level.