Gizmodo Editor's Tech Gear Seized

By  |  Monday, April 26, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Another great big shoe has dropped in the lost iPhone 4G saga: Gizmodo is reporting that on Friday, California police used a search warrant to knock down the door at the home of Jason Chen (author of the first story on the phone) and enter it when he wasn’t present. They removed a bunch of computers, related items like phones, flash drives, and cameras, and…his business cards. Gizmodo’s stance is that California’s journalist shield law protected Jason from search warrants, and the proper action on the police’s part would have been to seek a subpoena.

As I usually say when writing about legal stuff, I’m not a lawyer–I don’t even play one on TV. But I do believe that blogs like Gizmodo (and, hey, Technologizer) deserve exactly the same protections that more traditional journalistic enterprises get. If Gizmodo has a case here that the warrant was unlawful, I hope it presses it successfully.

And in this particular case, I don’t pretend that I can discuss Jason as an individual or Gizmodo as an editorial operation from a sober distance: Three years ago, they said some nice things about me that bucked up my spirits when I really needed it. For that reason, I’m not even going to try and provide dispassionate analysis. I’m in favor of everybody involved complying with the law–journalists and police–but I’m also very sorry to read about the seizure, and hopeful that things work out okay for him.


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19 Comments For This Post

  1. Ed Oswald Says:

    I am absolutely sickened by this turn of events. The police had warned of the seizure, to which Gawker responded that Mr. Chen is indeed a journalist, and afforded protections under the shield law. This case, and this seizure, have dramatic implications for journalists. Regardless of the backstory, what happens to other journalists who uncover things in the public interests?

    Do companies/police get free reign to seize their property in an attempt to suppress it?

  2. Jose Alvear Says:

    Yes, every blogger should be scared. That means police can come breaking down your door to seize computer equipment because of a story you’ve done.

    I’m not a lawyer either, but I think this is bad news and bad form. Unless the iPhone HD was really stolen, then I fail to see what crimes have taken place. Was the police ever called in when Twitter’s accounts were hacked and people stole files from them and TechCrunch made them public?

  3. D-Rock Says:

    I’m not a lawyer, but I do have a journalism degree, and I’m pretty sure there are some limits to most shield laws. Also, I’m fairly certain that felony theft is not protected.

    Here’s my question. Should gadget blogging be afforded the same protections of other traditional journalists?

    This whole sorry episode is about a company’s prototype product that was either lost or stolen, and when it was found or “found” it was not returned to the rightful owner, as prescribed by local law. Then this private property was exposed to the world by a blog. This is not about government or public info. It was not about uncovering any legal or ethical wrongdoing by Apple. It was about covering Apple’s possibly stolen private property that they had chosen not to share with the public at the time. How was the public interest or public good served by exposing this product? Is your life somehow better now that you know about it? Did it enhance society in any way?

    Mr. Chen may still avoid charges because of the shield laws. The police are probably collecting information to see if he can or should be charged with a crime. They’re also probably seeking the identity of the gentleman who sold the iPhone to Gizmodo.

    Who’s within their rights here? I don’t know. Obviously I think Gizmodo may have crossed the line in this story. I hate to seem them rewarded for their behavior with the money they made from all the traffic to their site. However, I’d hate to seem them as the martyr too.

  4. David Says:

    Sickened by what? They had stolen property. If a journalist hacked into someone’s machine, a shield law shouldn’t protect him or the tools used to commit the crime because he chose to public release a story about the hacking.

    He possessed and disassembled someone else’s stolen property. It is delusional to think that that phone wasn’t stolen.

    Leave your dislike of Apple out of it. If you left some property at a bar, and some jerk grabbed it and sold it to someone and that someone disassembled it causing you personal, professional and financial harm, I suspect you wouldn’t be “sickened” or worried about “bad form.”

    You would want the legal system to come down on the perps.

  5. Frank Reade Says:

    I don’t think it’s about “bloggers as journalists” and the shield law, although that’s how Denton and Gizmodo are trying to spin it.

    I think it’s more that Chen is a suspect in commission of a felony, and that’s why the warrant was issued and his house raided.

    (IANAL, etc).

  6. EB Says:

    If they are going after him for what he wrote, then he can hide behind 9and should hide behind) his rights as a journalist.
    But, from all appearances, and w’d be all foolish to think otherwise, the thief/founder of the iPhone knew what s/he had, s/he knew what it was worth. Other places turned him/her down for the money they were asking. S/he never called the bar to see if it was searched for. Gizmodo BOUGHT the property and then took pictures of it before letting Apple know they had it.

    Look, if someone leaked information to Gizmodo, and they published it, then they could hide behind freedom of press.

    But what happened here, or what could happen in the future?
    – Gizmodo, via prior actions, lets it be known they will pay for gadgets
    – Someone sees a gadget they know will have a value if they approach Gizmodo. They “liberate” it by whatever means possible, or just “find” it
    – Knowing that they will get nothing from who they “liberated” it from, person does not inform bar. Instead, they call known “fence” that has offered money for such things. Knowing the risk THEY are under, they exact a promise to not have their name published, while having no qualms about the name of the person who the property belongs to (hell, if he knew the name, a google search could have found the guys email — he was even on his FB page and could have left a message) .

    This has NOTHING to do with the rights of the press. The press is not allowed to steal property. They are not allowed to buy stolen property. They are not allowed to create an incentive or an environment where people believe they will be compensated if they steal for them. ‘Nuff said…

  7. Pascal Cuoq Says:


    you do not have to be dispassionate, especially with such an eloquent forewarning. But from what I see of his own work, I am not sure that Jason Chen was supportive for entirely the right reasons. IANOETBAJ (I am not old enough to be a judge), but I can see how one who fits the conservative senior persona would not consider his activity as journalism at all.

  8. Robert Says:

    Sorry, this isn’t about protection under the shield law, which concerns information journalists may acquire. This is about paying $10,000 for stolen property, knowing who the owner was. That’s against the law in the state of California. If you don’t like that and want to buy stolen property and blog about how much you paid and who the owner is, expect to be in court.

  9. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    I don’t think “bloggers versus journalists” comes into this at all, because if Walt Mossberg bought this stolen phone, his computers would be in lock up right now as well. I haven’t heard a single journalist defend Gizmodo’s actions, even if Gizmodo were bona fide journalists in the traditional sense. The reaction has all been an amazed “what were Gizmodo thinking!?”

    You can argue that bloggers deserve the same protections as journalists, but *more* protections?

    We don’t even have to wonder if Gizmodo did the right thing, because Engadget had the same opportunity, and Engadget did do the right thing.

    I hope nobody breaks into San Mateo’s evidence locker, steals Jason Chen’s computers, and sells them to a tech blog who disassembles them and publishes “Jason Chen’s Computers Revealed.” Then Gizmodo would have to defend that based on the same principles they’re using to defend themselves.

  10. Lloyd Budd Says:

    Seems Gawker has an easy argument to make, and they’ve positioned themselves to make it: they didn’t know the phone was authentic until Apple (legal) approached them to return it.

  11. Dan Frakes Says:

    Lloyd, I think that’s actually a difficult case to make. The fact that Gizmodo paid big bucks for the phone indicates that they knew, or at least suspected, it was legit. If Gizmodo were to try to make that case in court, any DA worth his or her salt would simply ask for proof of numerous other occasions on which the site paid $5,000 or more for supposed prototypes without verifying the authenticity of those prototypes beforehand.

  12. DaveD Says:

    Let me get this straight:

    (1) A prototype iPhone was lost in a bar.
    (2) Gizmodo “somehow” (for a price) found themselves in possession of this prototype (should I emphasize this?) weeks later.
    (3) Nobody else but Apple has this in their possesion when this happened.

    Is there any question about whether who or what party is legally ulpable?

    Okay, just in case… let me continue.
    (1) To repaeat – they PAID somebody $5000 by their own admission.
    (2) They posted a really egocentric replay to, well, Apple lawyers. (Not a good thing.)
    (3) See #2. And consider, they BRAGGED about it.
    (4) They posted photos of this iPhone. They talked details that clearly showed they broke it open. And this is something that, well, ANY competently-led company would have tons of documentation that they, well, consider it IP.

    Okay, just in case. JUST IN CASE. This doesn’t lead you to wonder *for a second* if all parties are *now* aware of what’s at stake:

    (1) The link you posted to Gizmodo doesn’t allow comment. (Otherwise I’d have posted this there. Instead, I have to comment where someone is at least “open” enough to let me.)

    (2) “I don’t pretend that I can discuss Jason as an individual or Gizmodo as an editorial operation from a sober distance…” What? From a sober distance? He’s toast. He posted a picture with him – smugly – posting holding something that is, uh, NOT HIS PORPERTY. AT ANY PRICE. Worse, his blog (and yes, Gizmodo is HIS blog) has posted daily since then!

    Look, read these words again:


    PAID $5000 FOR IT.


    Do you *really* need more?

    Guilty for, well, really any kind of BS he’s set up for.

  13. Lloyd Budd Says:

    $5000 doesn’t seem like that much money to me if there was even a possibility of the phone being genuine.

  14. Harry McCracken Says:

    We know that Gizmodo had access to the phone before it paid any money. I don’t know whether it’s clear that it was 100% positive that it was the real deal.

  15. Bob Says:

    Can you say invalid search warrant? Warrant was clearly NOT marked for night search. Yet they executed it at night.

    Sounds like a lot of BS for evidence that will be tossed out due to a defective warrant.

    Then you have the entire issue of shield laws.

    Bet the judge feels like a total A**hat over this one.

  16. D-Rock Says:

    Shield laws don’t protect journalists from being investigated or charged with receiving stolen property. A crime is still a crime.

    Another thing that concerned me about this that Gizmodo was very public with the fact that they paid a substantial amount of money for this phone. Does that suddenly put a target on every Apple engineer carrying an iPhone, prototype or not?

  17. Paul Judd Says:

    Night searches start after 10:00 per the California legal codes – the police initiated the warrant at 9:50 and had been at the house earlier than that.

  18. Stefan Says:

    Unauthorized publishing of trade secrets and industrial espionage is doing great harm to US companies. I am surprised the writers of the original “blog” didn’t see this coming.

  19. Also Bob Says:

    @Paul Judd and @Bob

    According to Gizmodo’s account, the police executed the warrant “a few hours” before Jason and his wife returned home “about 9:45[pm].” So clearly they beat the night search criterion by a good long while.