By The Vanguard Staff
SAN RAFAEL, CA – The First Amendment Coalition (FAC) said this week “materials” obtained in its legal action “expose the questionable rationale” the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s used to “justify an invasive probe into the digital devices of all arrestees — 17 people rounded up en masse after deputies declared an unlawful assembly, but who were never charged” in 2020.
FAC explains, “Public access to search warrants provides an important check on police powers. That’s why we went to court to demand the release of warrant materials stemming from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s mass arrests of protesters and journalists amid a 2020 demonstration over a deputy’s controversial killing of a Black cyclist named Dijon Kizzee.”
“This targeting of protesters raises significant concerns about chilling the exercise of First Amendment rights,” FAC added, stating the information was obtained only after “months of litigation and negotiation, our co-counsel, Susan E. Seager, secured the release of the records.”
FAC, in a statement, also said “the records further confirm that the agency was aware it was targeting two people, Julianna LaCoste and Pablo Unzueta, who identified themselves as journalists, raising press rights concerns. California shield law protections prohibit the use of warrants against journalists.”
“Deputies photographed LaCoste’s press credential, issued by the National Press Photographers Association, and a helmet that read ‘PRESS.’ Those photos, along with the fact both journalists have said they verbally identified themselves as press, should have put a pause on the probe or, at a minimum, prompted the department to make disclosures to the judge to ensure press rights were protected,” FAC charged.
“In addition to California’s strong shield law protections, the U.S. Privacy Protection Act limits when the government can pilfer through protected newsgathering materials. (Unzueta brought a civil rights lawsuit over the ordeal and received a $90,000 settlement.),” added FAC.
FAC challenged the probable cause statement used to ”obtain the warrant allowing invasive searches of browser history, contact lists, messages, photos, GPS data, and more describes signs of rioting and rioters by listing gear commonly carried by anyone attending protests, such as cell phones, gas masks, helmets, vests, and first aid equipment,” and the statement, “Peaceful protesters do not wear gas masks or these types of protective equipment during peaceful protests.”
“Anyone who has observed local protests would know this is a false statement. While rioters use this equipment, so do peaceful protesters — and journalists. Conflating the use of safety gear with criminal intent is something that endangers citizens and chills rights,” said Adam Rose, chair of the L.A. Press Club’s Press Rights Committee, in a letter to the sheriff’s department.
FAC added, “California law gives the public access to these judicial records, and for good reason. Sunshine on these records keeps us all informed about policing in our communities. And without transparency there can be no accountability.”