Judge rules media outlets have to turn over images, footage of May Seattle protest that turned violent

Judge rules media outlets have to turn over images, footage of May Seattle protest that turned violent
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A King County, Wash., judge on Thursday ruled five news outlets must turn over unpublished photos and footage from a May 30 Seattle protest for social and racial justice to the city's police department.

King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee on Thursday morning ruled the department’s subpoena was enforceable and that the materials were necessary for its investigation of alleged theft of Seattle Police Department (SPD) guns and burning of SPD vehicles after the protest turned violent, according to the Seattle Times.

The Seattle Times was one of the outlets subpoenaed.

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The suspects police are seeking allegedly damaged six vehicles, smashing windows and stealing equipment. The subpoena is seeking footage and photos from a 90-minute period in a four-block area.

Lee ruled that while the outlets were not protected by the state shield law, which governs the circumstances in which authorities can seek unpublished materials from journalists, police could only use the materials to identify suspects in the alleged arsons and theft of the guns. They could not pursue other crimes if the materials contain evidence of other wrongdoing, according to the newspaper.

Photos and videos on reporters’ personal cellphones are also exempt from the subpoena, which only applies to images on professional equipment.

In addition to the Times, the department subpoenaed TV stations KIRO7, KING5, KOMO4 and KCPQ13.

Times executive editor Michele Matass Flores argued the subpoena “puts our independence, and even our staff’s physical safety, at risk,” according to the newspaper.

“The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public,” she said. “We don’t work in concert with government, and it’s important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover.”

Eric Stahl, the attorney for the media outlets, argued that the police could not demonstrate they would be able to identify suspects from the materials they were seeking, and that “you have to have a strong reason to believe there is actually going to be critical evidence” in such images before subpoenaing them.

“We think there was too much speculation going on,” Stahl said after the hearing, saying the outlets had not yet decided whether they would appeal the decision.