Thursday, November 14, 2002
Cooley Cites Alternatives to Newsroom Searches in New Media Policy
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley said yesterday that an attempt to execute a search warrant on the Metropolitan News-Enterprise May 2 led him to craft a new policy to seek less intrusive measures for obtaining information from media outlets.
“I am absolutely committed to a newspaper person’s privilege,” Cooley said. He said his new policy seeks “practical ways in which that privilege can be acknowledged.”
The policy, part of Special Directive 02-03, states:
“It is the policy of this office not to seek search warrants for news media offices or homes of news media personnel when less intrusive measures are available.”
Cooley, asked in an interview if under the policy he would have handled the MetNews search warrant differently, said “there is more than one way to skin a cat” and that in the future his prosecutors and investigators should consider requesting that the documents they seek be turned over at some site away from the newsroom.
The MetNews was closed for several hours on May 2 when investigators probing official corruption in the city South Gate presented a search warrant at the newspaper’s office. The warrant named the “editing” department among those to be searched for the documents.
Company personnel at first declined to turn over the papers—invoices showing the law firm of Albright, Yee and Schmit ordered a legal notice as part of an abortive recall effort against several elected city officials. The investigators then ordered company personnel out of the building and prepared to search.
A standoff was ended, and a search averted, when company President Jo-Ann Grace turned over the document after it was ascertained that the District Attorney’s Office Office already knew the identify of the law firm. She said she had previously offered to provide documents if the prosecutors would tell her what law firm was under suspicion.
Cooley at the time defended his office and yesterday reiterated that presentation of the warrant was proper, even if it might be handled differently in the future.
“We thought it through based on our experience with the Metropolitan News, where we were there lawfully,” Cooley said. The papers he sought “would be evidence of corruption by an entity which had placed a certain advertisement or notice. It’s really a matter of technique in obtaining it.”
On the same day that the investigators presented their warrant to the MetNews, district attorney personnel conducted a search of the Albright law office in downtown Los Angeles and served warrants naming attorney Clifton Albright’s home and office in South Gate City Hall.
No charges have been filed against Albright, who did legal work for the city of South Gate, but Cooley said there an “active investigation” is continuing. Albright is seen by some observers of that turbulent city to be allied with the city council majority, which is subject to an active recall effort and faces a vote early next year. The majority’s opponents have charged that city funds are being spent for political purposes, including the second, abortive, recall effort against those who back recall of the majority.
MetNews editor and co-publisher Roger Grace lashed out at Cooley and his office after the incident, demanding an apology and filing a government tort claim against the county.
Grace said yesterday Cooley’s new policy was a step in the right direction, but criticized Cooley for failing to “take cognizance of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000aa.”
That federal statute, known as the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, bars searches and seizures in newsrooms unless there is probable cause to believe that there is evidence that someone on the premises has committed a crime or that evidence there would be destroyed.
“It’s not merely a matter of the office having a policy,” Grace said. “He needs to recognize that his office and every other government office is under the proscription contained in the code section. He may not lawfully conduct a search in news media offices unless there is present one of the statutory exceptions.”
Grace added that Cooley still has not apologized for the incident. “And he owes us an apology,” Grace said.
The new media policy, dated Oct. 25 and circulated to prosecutors last month but distributed publicly yesterday, stresses Cooley’s support for allowing cameras in courtrooms and a ban on gag orders—two measures that the district attorney described a “significant changes.”
On cameras in court, absolute discretion on the matter is vested in the judge under California court Rule 980. But Cooley said he hoped his policy of not opposing courtroom photography “would help judicial officers recognize that there is a proper role for cameras in the courtroom.”
Judicial discomfort with cameras stems from the O.J. Simpson trial, Cooley said.
“It was a sort of caught-in-the-headlights syndrome,” he said. “I think we’re coming back from that.
He noted that his prosecutors pressed for cameras in proceedings involving actor and accused killer Robert Blake, and in the prosecution of ex-Symbionese Liberation Army associate Sara Jane Olson, also known as Kathleen Soliah.
Reiterating a policy he stated soon after his election two years ago, Cooley said his prosecutors would not seek any gag orders. Gag order requests from defendants might be appropriate in some circumstances, he said.
The 11-page policy will be posted on the department’s web site, Cooley said.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company