Finders keepers? Police illegally seize and refuse to return journalists’ equipment

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

A video camera pointed to the side is shown in front of a white and blue news van

Police often seize equipment from reporters outside the newsroom and then refuse to return it after months or years, despite federal and state law largely prohibiting such actions.

Tom Woodward, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

When police arrived at the Marion County Record with a search warrant, reporter Deb Gruver tried to use her cellphone to call the publisher. According to a lawsuit Gruver later filed, Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody “snatch[ed] the phone out of her hand.” It was one of the first pieces of equipment seized during the now-notorious raid.

Thanks in part to a national outcry, police (belatedly) returned the Record’s equipment. But other seizures of journalists’ equipment — ones that aren’t part of a shocking newsroom raid — often receive less attention and far worse outcomes.

Here are three other examples of police taking journalists’ equipment. These seizures likely violate federal law, and they certainly chill reporting. Perhaps most disturbingly, in each case, the equipment has yet to be returned — despite the seizure occurring months or even years ago, and no journalist having been convicted of violating any law.

Photojournalists and protests: It’s no secret that police routinely harass and arrest journalists covering protests. Unsurprisingly, journalists are at heightened risk of equipment seizures at protests too. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, searches and seizures of journalists’ equipment soared in 2020, coinciding with the Black Lives Matter protest movement.

In one example, sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles County seized photojournalist Pablo Unzueta’s cellphone and camera while Unzueta was documenting a protest over the police killing of Dijon Kizzee, a Black man. Despite repeatedly identifying himself as press, Unzueta was brutally arrested.

Police later obtained a search warrant for Unzueta’s cellphone, apparently without telling the court that he was a journalist and ignoring the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, or PPA, a federal law that provides additional protections against searches of journalists’ equipment. It’s far from the only time police conveniently neglected to mention the PPA in a warrant application to search a journalist’s phone.

The charge against Unzueta was later dropped, and, with a lawyer’s help, Unzueta got his camera and cellphone back. However, police didn’t return his camera’s memory card — which contained two years worth of Unzueta’s freelance work — claiming it was “lost” during his arrest.

Unzueta later settled a civil suit against the authorities. The settlement is an important reminder to police that they can’t arrest and seize equipment from journalists who are just covering demonstrations. But Unzueta still lost years’ worth of work, and the public never saw his pictures showing police violently dispersing the protest.

Charges dropped, equipment held anyway: As in Unzueta’s case, police routinely arrest journalists on meritless charges to stop them from reporting, only to later drop the charges when they might have to defend them in court. While Unzueta got (most of) his equipment back, however, other journalists simply don’t.

For example, in the fall of 2022, police seized a laptop belonging to the Scotio Valley Guardian and the cellphone of Guardian Editor-in-Chief Derek Myers after the newspaper published audio of court testimony from a murder trial given to it by a confidential source. Myers was later charged with felony wiretapping.

Prosecutors left the charges against Myers pending for more than nine months but eventually dropped them in August 2023. However, the laptop and cellphone remain in police custody, even though the seizures likely violated the PPA and state shield law.

Holding equipment like this can prevent reporting in the immediate aftermath of the seizure, as well as chill future reporting. The seizure of the laptop stopped the Guardian from providing an authorized livestream of the murder trial. Myers also told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was “extremely concerned about the potential search of the devices as they contain sensitive work product and source communications.”

The low-tech seizures: Unzueta and Myers had computers, cellphones, and cameras seized, but let’s not forget about the simple reporter’s notebook. Police sometimes seize — and keep — journalists’ handwritten notes.

For instance, in May 2022, police detained freelance journalist Ryan Fatica while he was covering a protest in Atlanta, Georgia. Fatica was filming the protest and identified himself as a journalist when he was being arrested. Nevertheless, police took his reporting notebook. According to Fatica, an officer “started looking through the notes, then said something like, ‘You’re not getting this back,’ and put it in her pocket.”

Fatica was later released without charges, but his notebook wasn’t returned. He’s far from the only reporter to have his notes seized by authorities. More recently, a North Carolina judge seized notes by a reporter covering a juvenile court proceeding and placed her under a gag order.

Taking reporters’ notes makes it harder for them to accurately report on newsworthy events and raises the risk that law enforcement will learn confidential information about journalists’ sources or other unreported material. It’s also almost always prohibited by the PPA and may be prohibited by state shield laws as well. Unfortunately, government officials seem all too willing to flout the law and seize journalists’ notes anyway.

Not only do each of these equipment seizures violate the law, they also harm the public’s right to know. Without their equipment, reporters can be hamstrung in publishing the news they’ve gathered. When sensitive information contained on equipment falls into the hands of police, it undermines journalists’ ability to gather and report news in the future.

That’s why legal protections for journalists’ equipment aren’t limited to newsroom raids. Our outrage over police seizures shouldn’t be either.

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