Police Are Still Storming Newsrooms with Search Warrants

By Scott, Sandra Davidson | Editor & Publisher, September 17, 1994 | Go to article overview

Police Are Still Storming Newsrooms with Search Warrants


Scott, Sandra Davidson, Editor & Publisher


DESPITE THE PRIVACY Protection Act of 1980, passed by Congress to prohibit knock-and-enter searches of newsrooms with search warrants, such searches by police continue.

A recent newsroom victim is WDAF-TV in Kansas City. In early August, police confiscated a videotape for use in a murder case, and the station quickly filed suit in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

For $150, the station had purchased a videotape from Earl Warren, a tourist from Arlington, Texas. Warren was visiting Kansas City's Liberty Memorial when he looked toward Crown Center and saw a man dragging a woman into the Santa Fe Apartments.

Warren's camera recorded the incident and also recorded a gun shot and the same man coming out of the apartment building. Although the man had a gun, police were able to apprehend him.

The woman, Julia Flege, had been murdered in the lobby, and the man, Chancey Wright, has been charged with her murder.

On Aug. 5, WDAF aired portions of the tape on its six o'clock news show. Jackson County's prosecuting attorney, Claire McCaskill, got a judge to sign a search warrant that evening, and the police did a knock-and-enter search of the newsroom.

Although station employees offered to give the police a copy of portions of the tape the station aired, as well as the name of the tourist who made the tape, the police refused. They confiscated the original, 14-minute tape.

By doing a search with a warrant instead of following the federally mandated procedure of having a subpoena issued to the station, the station was deprived the opportunity to have a hearing on whether it had to turn over the original tape to the authorities.

On Aug. 10, the station's attorney, Sam Colville, filed suit under the Privacy Protection Act and Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code for deprivation of the station's First Amendment rights.

Colville filed suit against the prosecutor, the Board of Police Commissioners, the police chief and a police officer. Colville said in a telephone interview Aug. 18 that he did not sue the judge, who, according to Colville, was disturbed at nine o'clock on a Friday evening to sign the search warrant.

"This concept of a First Amendment right doesn't make a lot of sense when a criminal is dragging a woman across the lawn," Colville said. "First Amendment issues don't come to the fore. I might have signed the search warrant, too."

The fault lies with the prosecuting attorney who wrongly asked the judge to sign the warrant, not with the judge, Colville believes.

Evidentiary hearings were held in federal court Aug. 11 and 12, with Judge Fernando J. Giatan Jr. presiding. The judge directed the defendants to make a copy of the videotape and turn that over to the station, which they did.

Attorneys for both sides are now writing briefs on the issues.

Colville said he had "reason to believe" there would be no further evidentiary hearings. Instead, he expects the judge to make any further rulings based on the evidence already presented and the attorney's legal arguments.

Colville is seeking a mandatory injunction for return of the original tape. He also would like a declaration from the judge stating that the police violated the station's constitutional and statutory rights.

But Colville does not plan to seek an injunction against the authorities forbidding future violations of the station's rights. As he said, attorneys usually "don't get an order not to violate the law. …

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