L.A. Sheriff Agrees to Unsealing of Warrant to Search Photojournalist and Black Lives Matter Protesters’ Cell Phones

The protestors were demonstrating against the August 2020 killing of cyclist Dijon Kizzee

Contact: fac@firstamendmentcoalition.org

San Rafael, Calif. – On Thursday, the First Amendment Coalition and independent news organization Knock LA prevailed in a legal battle against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) over the unsealing of search warrant materials, ensuring that the public can finally see for itself the department’s stated rationale for seizing and searching cell phones and digital cameras from 16 Black Lives Matter protesters and one photojournalist in September 2020. The individuals were demonstrating against LASD deputies’ killing of cyclist Dijon Kizzee on August 31, 2020.

Under former Sheriff Alex Villanueva, LASD fought the unsealing of the search warrant itself and the affidavit in support of that warrant for over two years, in violation of California state law and the First Amendment, which “creates a presumptive right of public and press access to court criminal records, including search warrant records,” according to the motion to unseal. The only exception to this rule is to protect the identity of confidential informants, which was not at issue in this case.

Sheriff Robert Luna, who defeated Villanueva in November’s election, on May 18 gave up LASD’s fight to keep these records secret, acceding to the unsealing and, thus, tacitly acknowledging the records should have been public long ago.

The following can be attributed to Susan E. Seager, Adjunct Clinical Professor at the UC Irvine School of Law, who represented Knock LA and FAC in the case. 

“The fact that the Sheriff’s Department suddenly asked the court to unseal these search warrant records more than two years later — without explanation — shows that the department never had a good reason to seal them in the first place. It is horrifying to see that deputies used this search warrant to suck up private data from the cell phones of 17 protesters who were arrested but never charged.” 

The following can be attributed to David Snyder, Executive Director, First Amendment Coalition:

“While we are grateful the public can finally see these documents, they should have been able to do so long ago. There can be no real accountability without knowledge – what did the police tell the judge who issued this warrant? Now this crucial question can be answered, and accountability for any unjustified arrest and seizure can at long last begin.”

The search warrant and supporting affidavit released yesterday can be found below: