Remember the firestorm last week when pictures of and details about the next iPhone showed up in Gizmodo? As the story evolved, we learned that Gray Powell, an Apple engineer, inadvertently left the prototype on a bar stool after a night out with friends. (Some have said he was celebrating his birthday.) Someone else at the bar picked it up, and after waiting to see if its owner returned, pocketed it and contacted Gizmodo. Gizmodo reportedly paid the as yet unidentified bar patron $5,000 for the phone and then ran with its exclusive story.
Friday, police in San Mateo County, Calif., executed a search warrant at the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen, during which they seized his computer equipment, storage media, and other electronics in connection with an investigation into the "leak" of the prototype. According to The New York Times:
The authorities in San Mateo County are considering criminal charges in connection with the sale of the phone, which Gizmodo returned to Apple last week. Some media writers have said that Gawker Media [which owns Gizmodo] could find itself in legal trouble if the phone was classified as stolen.
Gawker Media, on the other hand, maintains the warrant was invalid under California's shield law for journalists. In a letter to investigators, Gawker COO Gaby Darbyshare cited California Penal Code section 1524(g) for the proposition that a search warrant is not the proper means of confiscating the property of a journalist. She said:
It is abundantly clear under the law that a search warrant to remove these items was invalid. The appropriate method of obtaining such materials would be the issuance of a subpoena.
As BNet blogger Steve Tobak points out, though, Chen and Gizmodo may be out of luck if it turns out they are being investigated for theft instead of merely receiving stolen property. Tobak quotes California Penal Code section 485 as follows:
One who finds lost property under circumstances which give him knowledge of or means of inquiry as to the true owner, and who appropriates such property to his own use, or to the use of another person not entitled thereto, without first making reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him, is guilty of theft.