DA Mulling Charges Against Gizmodo Editor

A California district attorney is trying to determine whether laws were broken over the tech blog's payment for an unreleased iPhone.
Prosecutors on Tuesday were deciding whether to file charges against tech blog Gizmodo, which paid $5,000 for an unreleased iPhone that was mistakenly left in a Silicon Valley bar by an Apple employee.

Authorities Monday night raided the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen and seized four computers, two servers, an iPad, an iPhone, and other gadgets. Chen was not arrested.

The San Mateo County, Calif., district attorney's office has acknowledged it is reviewing the case to determine if charges are warranted, but on Tuesday refused to comment further.

"There is nothing new to report," Stephen Wagstaffe, the chief deputy district attorney, said in a voice message. "No information can or will be given out at this time on this case."

Gizmodo has said it won't comment while the investigation is in process, and Apple has not responded to media requests for comment.

The fiasco started about a week ago when a person found the apparently lost iPhone in a bar and sold it to Gizmodo for $5,000. The tech blog then reported extensively on the innards of the device, which industry observers believe Apple was getting ready to release in the summer.

Whether Gizmodo broke any laws is unclear. However, California law does require the finder of a lost item to return it in a reasonable time, if the owner is known, according to the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University. If the item is not returned, then it could be considered stolen.

Gizmodo returned the iPhone to Apple at the company's request, after the "exclusive" generated millions of extra page views and considerable publicity.

Gawker Media, which owns Gizmodo, claims the raid was illegal because Chen's property is protected under California's shield law, which protects information gathered by journalists from seizure, unless a court issues a subpoena. However, prosecutors could challenge that argument if they decide that Gizmodo knowingly bought stolen property.

The raid was conducted by the Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team, which is a partnership of 17 local, state, and federal agencies that work closely with the high-tech industry. The REACT team's action was criticized Tuesday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which sided with Gizmodo.

"Putting the presumed interests of an important local company before the rights guaranteed by law is an obvious occupational hazard for a police force charged with paying particular attention to the interests of high-tech businesses," a legal analysis by the public interest group said. "Now that First Amendment lawyers, reporters, and others have highlighted the potential legal improprieties of this search, the task force should freeze their investigation, return Chen's property, and reconsider whether going after journalists for trying to break news about one of the Valley's most secretive (and profitable) companies is a good expenditure of taxpayer dollars."