Back before we had ever heard of the iPhone 4, Gizmodo got their hands on a prototype. You've probably heard about that. The resulting criminal investigation resulted in GIzmodo editor Jason Chen having his home searched by the authorities. In the process, they confiscated all his electronic devices. Now the San Mateo County District Attorney has had the warrant withdrawn. Mr. Chen will be getting his stuff back, for now at least.
The EFF has long claimed the warrant was issued illegally, and points to California’s Penal Code section 1524(g), which disallows the use of warrants to obtain "unpublished information obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing information for communication to the public.” This is part of what is often called the shield law. The EFF goes on to point out that another warrant could be issued at any time to obtain the items again. Is this the end of it, or will the investigation continue?
A lawyer for Gizmodo said today that his clients may choose to file a lawsuit against the San Mateo County Sheriff for the raid on editor Jason Chen's home. The search was part of the investigation revolving around Gizmodo's acquisition of a prototype next-gen iPhone. The warrant was served to Chen on Friday, and authorized police to take Chen's computers and hard drives. Gizmodo has held that the warrant was improperly issued because California's shield law should protect Chen from seizure of property.
Stephen Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney in San Mateo County claims the issue was examined before the search was conducted. The sticking point is that if Gizmodo is the target of the investigation for the purchase of the phone, the shield law would probably not apply. The distinction is that in cases of direct wrong doing, journalists aren't protected from searches.
Civil rights groups, including the EFF, have come down firmly on the side of Gizmodo here. It would set a disturbing standard if the shield law were ignored simply because Chen works from home, and not in a traditional newsroom. Where do you come down? Should Gizmodo file the suit? More importantly, what does this mean for online journalism?
Sticklers for journalistic propriety have always frowned upon checkbook journalism, which is far more rampant now thanks to the internet. Thankfully for checkbook journalists though, their critics can do little more than protest. But buying a story is one thing, and flouting the law in doing so a totally different affair.
Last week, when Gizmodo proudly flaunted what it claimed to be a misplaced prototype of the next iPhone, it prompted many to question the legality of the way in which the phone was acquired – the blog’s editors avowedly paid $5000 for the misplaced phone. Under state law, a finder of goods who can determine the owner of lost property is under legal obligation to return it to its original owner, and the failure to do so makes him guilty of theft.
It has now emerged that cops investigating the matter raided Gizmodo editor Jason Chen's house on Friday and confiscated four computers and two servers. According to Jason Chen, cops bust into his house in his absence and were busy scouring the place for evidence when he and his wife arrived from dinner at around 9:45PM. The cops were carrying a search warrant issued by the Superior Court of the County of San Mateo, California.
Gawker Media COO Gaby Darbyshire believes that the search warrant against Gizmodo's editor contravened section 1524(g) of the California Penal Code, which states that “a publisher, editor, reporter, or other person connected with or employed upon a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication” can not be forced to make any disclosures with regards to the source of any information obtained by them in their official capacity.