Ben Berkowitz is taking on the San Francisco Police Department.
The Keker, Van Nest & Peters partner has picked up journalist Bryan Carmody’s case against the city’s police force pro bono. In February, the freelance journalist sold information to three local news stations on the circumstances surrounding the death of public defender Jeff Adachi, who collapsed in the home of a woman who was not his wife. The materials sold to the media organizations included a leaked police report. After refusing to name his source, the SFPD showed up at Carmody’s apartment May 10 armed with a search warrant, sledgehammers and a battering ram. Carmody sat cuffed in his underwear for about six hours as the police department raided his apartment.
The Recorder caught up with Berkowitz, who shared what troubled him most about this case.
Why have you decided to defend Bryan Carmody?
The right of the press to investigate and report without fear of police intimidation is a fundamental principle of our democracy. I’ve agreed to represent Bryan pro bono, because the SFPD needs to know that our law firm and the legal community is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Bryan. We’re putting the SFPD on notice that we’re ready to fight for Bryan against any criminal charges. One of the many things that offends me about what the SFPD has done in this case is that they picked on an everyday, individual journalist. They would not have dared to raid the San Francisco Chronicle, or break down their doors with sledgehammers. The SFPD needs to know that if they want to come after Bryan, we’re here to defend him—and we’ll win. The First Amendment and California law are crystal clear that you cannot raid a journalist home or arrest him because he received and reported on government documents. This is what journalists do every day. The SFPD’s actions are an assault on the Free Press, and we are confident that they will be found unlawful in the courts.
Do you think there was unwarranted force used in the search of Carmody’s home?
I can’t think of any legitimate reason to bring a sledgehammer to his door or keep him in handcuffs for six hours while they searched his home and office. So, yes.
What’s your next move in this case?
We’re calling on the SFPD to review what happened here and to make sure it never happens again to another journalist. We think Chief of Police William Scott and the SFPD need to do a review of what went wrong here and assure the people of San Francisco that these mistakes won’t be made again. There’s a motion to quash the subpoena and to confirm that the SFPD has not copied the materials it illegally seized from Mr. Carmody including his reporting notebooks and computers. We think any of those copies should be returned to Mr. Carmody.
What impact do you think this case will have First Amendment rights of journalists?
We’re living in a really troubling and alarming time for journalists in this country. We’re witnessing daily assaults by people in power on the journalistic profession. What we want to achieve here is to make sure that one thing journalists never get used to is raids of their homes and offices by armed police officers looking to uncover confidential sources. We’re deeply troubled by the San Francisco Police Department’s decision to raid a journalist’s home. The principle that’s at stake here is one that’s fundamental to our democracy. The press must be free to investigate and report without fear of police intimidation. That’s the principle we’re fighting for and the statement we’re hoping to send to the San Francisco Police Department.