Gizmodo.com, the technology blog, said law enforcement officials seized computers from the home of Jason Chen, a staff editor who wrote about a prototype for an Apple Inc. iPhone that had been left behind in a bar.
On April 23, members of California’s Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team, an independent crime task force, “entered editor Jason Chen’s home without him present, seizing four computers and two servers,” according to a statement on Gizmodo’s site, which is owned by Gawker Media.
After Gizmodo purchased the unreleased iPhone from the person who found it, investigators want to know whether Chen’s computers were used “as the means of committing a felony,” according to a published copy of the search warrant. Gawker asked police to return the machines, citing laws that protect online journalists from having newsroom equipment seized.
“Under both state and federal law, a search warrant may not be validly issued to confiscate the property of a journalist,” Gawker Chief Operating Officer Gaby Darbyshire wrote in a letter to law enforcers posted at Gawker’s Web site. “We expect the immediate return of the materials that you confiscated.”
The seizure revives debate over whether bloggers should be accorded the same status as reporters who work for traditional news outlets, said Nick Denton, founder and president of Gawker.
“Are bloggers journalists?,” Denton asked in an e-mail. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Gizmodo said it paid $5,000 for the device after it was left at a Redwood City, California, bar by an Apple engineer identified as Gray Powell. A patron who found the handset on a stool and realized it was an unreleased iPhone tried to contact Apple to return it, Gizmodo said, citing an interview with the unidentified finder.
On April 19, Gizmodo gave back the phone after receiving a letter from Bruce Sewell, the company’s general counsel, asking for the return of a “device that belongs to Apple.”
Law enforcement officials don’t plan to search Chen’s computers until they can determine the validity of Gawker’s claim about his status as a journalist, said Stephen Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County, which has jurisdiction over Redwood City, about 25 miles south of San Francisco. That will happen in the coming days, he said.
“What Gizmodo is saying has been addressed to us and is being looked at by us and the prosecutor assigned to the investigation,” Wagstaffe said in an interview today.
If Gizmodo succeeds in showing that the conduct was illegal under laws that shield journalists, including bloggers, from such searches, any gathered evidence couldn’t be used in a case against the iPhone finder, said Peter Scheer, an attorney and executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit public interest group.
“In their zeal to get this information, they have made themselves extremely vulnerable,” Scheer said.
Wagstaffe declined to say who or what initiated the investigation, which is being led by San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department detectives assigned to REACT, a task force that probes technology-related matters in Silicon Valley.
Any probe may focus on allegations that the person who found the phone violated California theft laws, Wagstaffe said.
Chen described the seizure in a six-paragraph letter posted on Gizmodo, which also published the search warrant inventory provided by REACT. Chen said police kicked in his door while he and his wife were out to dinner on April 23.
“I noticed the garage door was half-open, and when I tried to open it, officers came out and said they had a warrant to search my house and any vehicles on the property ‘in my control,’” Chen said. “They then made me place my hands behind my head and searched me to make sure I had no weapons or sharp objects on me.”
Chen said one of the officers in charge said the situation might be a “misunderstanding that could be cleared up if I answered some questions. I didn’t say anything in response.”
The search warrant, posted on Gizmodo, gives authority to Detective Matthew Broad to seize property -- including computers, cameras and storage devices -- that may have been “used as the means of committing a felony.” The search pertained to the “sale of photographs of the prototype phone and/or the sale of the physical prototype of 4G Apple iPhone” and “research conducted on Apple employee Gray Powell,” including call records and contact lists.
Apple declined to comment, said Steve Dowling, a spokesman for the Cupertino, California, company.
According to the inventory list, police took away Chen’s Apple MacBook notebooks, iPad and iPhone, Dell Inc. desktop computer, digital cameras, a Motorola Inc. phone, flash and disk drives, a server computer, documents detailing his bank account and credit card information and one box of his business cards.