Media Coalition Asks Court to Unseal Search Warrant Targeting Protesters Kept Under Seal for Two Years

Media Coalition Asks Court to Unseal Search Warrant Targeting Protesters Kept Under Seal for Two Years

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Updated: The hearing has been reset for Oct. 17 at 10:30 a.m.

LOS ANGELES — California government watchdog group First Amendment Coalition and independent news organization Knock LA this week are asking a court to unseal a two-year-old search warrant obtained by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to search the cell phones of 17 people who were arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest but never charged. The hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, Los Angeles Superior Court, Norwalk Courthouse, Dept. F, before Judge Margaret Bernal. [Update: The hearing has been postponed until Oct. 17 at 10:30 a.m.]

“Just last week, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva used search warrants to search the homes and computers of his political critics, including a county supervisor,” said UC Irvine School of Law Adjunct Professor Susan E. Seager, who is co-counsel for the two groups and head of UC Irvine’s Press Freedom Project. “We are asking the court to unseal another questionable search warrant targeting another group of critics — people protesting the department’s killing of a Black man.”

The sheriff’s department has fought for the past two years to keep the search warrant for the protesters under seal, which is in sharp contrast to Sheriff Villanueva’s immediate posting of the search warrant and affidavit for the controversial search of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s home last week, Seager said. “Why is the sheriff trying so hard to keep a two-year-old search warrant secret for his nothing burger case against protesters?” Seager said.

Deputies arrested 17 people in South Los Angeles two years ago — on September 8, 2020 — and seized their cell phones and cameras. Deputies gave the arrestees misdemeanor citations for allegedly failing to leave the area after a protest of the department’s killing of Black bicyclist Dijon Kizzee. But the District Attorney immediately rejected the case submitted by the Sheriff’s Department in 2020 and refused to file charges against the 17 arrestees, Seager said. The decision by the DA triggered a California law (Penal Code section 851.6(d)) requiring the sheriff’s department to delete the word “arrest” in all law enforcement records for the 17 people and change it to “detention,” she said.

“Transparency is essential to accountability, especially when law enforcement targets people exercising their First Amendment rights,” said David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition. “The sheriff cannot credibly promote transparency when it serves his purposes and resist transparency when it doesn’t.”

In addition to protesters, at least one journalist was among those arrested and had his cell phone and camera seized by deputies, and his devices were possibly subject to the search warrant, further illustrating why transparency is essential and long overdue, Seager said. 

Read the motion to unseal

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Susan E. Seager, adjunct professor of law at UC Irvine School of Law, counsel for First Amendment Coalition and Knock LA and head of the Press Freedom Project at UC Irvine law school: sseager1.clinic@law.uci.edu, (949) 824-5447.
David Loy, legal director, First Amendment Coalition: dloy@firstamendmentcoalition.org.