October 13, 2006 11:12 AM PDT

Police blotter: Prosecutors want reporters' hard drives

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"Police blotter" is a weekly CNET News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett demands reporters' entire hard drives.

When: Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules on Oct. 6.

Outcome: Court denies attorney general's request, saying it would be too invasive and create a chilling effect for journalists.

What happened, according to court documents: Investigators in the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, have become convinced that the Lancaster County coroner gave reporters for the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal his password to a law enforcement Web site. That site contains nonpublic details of local crimes.

So the attorney general did what prosecutors tend to do: Early this year, his office sent Lancaster Newspapers a grand-jury subpoena demanding that the news organization turn over four PCs. (Coroner Gary Kirchner told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he didn't provide any passwords.)

The newspaper's attorneys objected, but they had no success. Corbett's agents seized four hard drives in February and have maintained possession of them ever since.

Then, in June, the newspaper was served with a second subpoena, demanding two computer hard drives used by reporters of the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, the Lancaster New Era and the Lancaster Sunday News.

The news organization sought to quash that subpoena, but a judge declared Lancaster Newspapers to be in contempt of court and levied a $1,000-a-day fine for failure to turn over the additional hard drives. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, temporarily halted the daily fines while it considered the case.

What makes this case especially relevant to Police Blotter is that journalists' hard drives contain far more data than just history files showing what pages were visited in a Web browser. They'll likely be brimming with conversations with confidential sources, memos from editors about internal and sensitive newsroom procedures, and lists of phone numbers and e-mail addresses that are intended to be private. Many states, including Pennsylvania, have shield laws that protect confidential sources for precisely that reason.

But instead of asking the newspaper to turn over only its browser logs, Corbett and his aides have demanded the entire hard drives.

For its part, Lancaster Newspapers cited the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment Privacy Protection Act and the Pennsylvania Shield Law in objecting to the subpoena, saying it was akin to turning over to the attorney general an entire set of newsroom file cabinets.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed. The majority opinion said the "unavoidable effect is that the essential 'filing cabinets' of the newspapers are transferred to the custody and control of the executive branch of government."

It added, "We recognize the concern on the part of the attorney general that the office is attempting to gather and secure evidence, and the hard drives themselves may in fact be the best evidence available concerning the matters subject to investigation. In this regard, however, and in the present status quo, we believe that any direct and compelled transfer to the executive branch of general-use media computer hardware should be pursuant to a due and proper warrant, issued upon probable cause."

Nowhere in the court documents did it say whether the newspaper reporters used encryption, which would have added another legal wrinkle. PGP sells a whole-disk encryption product for Windows ($119 for home use), and Apple's OS X operating system includes File Vault, which completely encrypts a home directory.

See more CNET content tagged:
Pennsylvania, attorney general, Police Blotter, subpoena, reporter


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Add your comment
It'd be nice if there was some sort of escrow procedure for situations like this. Some certified agency would hold the entire drive, who would extract and deliver to the attorney general ONLY the stuff that was relvant. If the browser history was all that was relevant, only that would be provided.

But then how do you keep a handle on things that they don't start demanding that everything is relevant, and have the escrow guys going in a wild goose chase into things that don't need going into, and how to you keep corruption of the process from happenning?
Posted by amigabill (93 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Time to end the Grand Jury system
The grand jury system was put in place at the state and federal levels a half-century ago to combat the Sicilian mafia; it has been abused non-stop ever since, the ridiculous Clinton/Whitewater investigation by Kenneth Starr being the latest grevous example, and needs to be reformed so that the judicial branch oversees the proceedings as they go on and can step in to stop abuses before the fact. Our eyes have all been opened by the Bush administration's drive toward "Amero-fascism" and abusive totalitarian power. Prosecutors should not be trusted with powers they have proven certain to abuse.
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I have to agree
I have to agree that the Grand Jury system is totally outdated. It needs to be made so that a JUDGE has to order that there is enough evidence for a prosecution to go forward.

Most people on grand juries are....... well, I have to say it.... stupid. Because most ADULTS OF GRAND JURY AGE are stupid and believe ANYTHING a law-enforcement officer or prosecutor tells them.
Posted by Leria (585 comments )
Link Flag
Oh well!
Oh well, thus begins the short fast march to the end of democracy and even quicker rise to the reinstatement of Stalin's version of no freedom for the individual and all power to the state!

All too soon, with the 'diebold rent-a-vote!' electronic voting machines , state and federal elections will be so rigged, that even those that died last century, will now be able to vote in the current mid term elections!, and then after that we can use the Texas/Florida Razor, to disenfranchise all the living voters!

In the interim, the corrupt power hungry DA's and police forces will continue to grow in power, legally terrorize their own population at the slightest inconceiveable pretext(as happened very recently in the United Kingdom), will be inventing new ways and means to curtail all press freedoms and replace it with that similar to George Orwell's vision as used in 1984!

Welcome to America's new undeclared war on it's own population, very similar to that which CIA sponsored and were very active participants as well, as that which happened in Argentina in the eighties, or Greece in the late sixties(allegedly fighting the evil communists, but in reality something totally different)!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Oh well indeed!
Heystoopid publicly made this remark:

"All too soon, with the 'diebold rent-a-vote!' electronic voting
machines , state and federal elections will be so rigged, that
even those that died last century, will now be able to vote in the
current mid term elections"

They won't have to do anything that obvious because those
horrible communistic diebold "rent-a-vote" machines leave no
paper trail to follow and are easier to hack than Winblows. So
you go vote for your favorite Democratic representative along
with 70% of the population, but the next day you read in the
papers that the Republican won. How would you prove fraud?
Answer - YOU CAN'T!!!

Time to lay down, you sheeple. Take what the government gives
you and like it. Unless you prefer a room in Gitmo and the title
of "enemy combatant".

Posted by Dalkorian (3000 comments )
Link Flag
Taking Hard Drives
This would discombubulate most people, how does one stay in
business, given legal processes last for years, and removing hard
drives from laptops can be difficult or expensive.
Posted by samhuff (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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