Judge temporarily blocks search of slain reporter’s phone

Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German appears in an undated photograph.
Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German appears in an undated photograph. (Handout photo courtesy Las Vegas Review-Journal)

A Nevada judge has temporarily blocked a request by police, prosecutors and defense attorneys to search a cell phone associated with a deceased newspaper reporter.

The tentative ruling came on Thursday after the Las Vegas Review-Journal and several other news organizations asked a court to prevent a wholesale search of Jeff German’s phone over concerns that such an examination could compromise anonymous and confidential sources.

German was killed last month following a dispute outside his home. Police arrested local politician Robert Telles in connection with German’s death. German frequently covered Telles in an unflattering light, revealing numerous scandals associated with the politician’s work as the public administrator for Clark County.

Police seized German’s cell phone as evidence in the alleged killing, and prosecutors have requested permission to examine files on the device, so they can link Telles to the journalist’s death.

While the newspaper initially praised law enforcement’s diligence in arresting Telles, they expressed reservations about police and prosecutors doing a wholesale search of his phone, arguing that it could reveal sources who were granted a cover of protection.

“It will have a long-term and chilling effect on sources and journalists receiving information from sources,” David Chesnoff, an attorney representing the Review-Journal in the case, said in an interview on Thursday. “If it’s okay to kill a journalist so that everything the journalist dedicated himself to [can be revealed], that would be outrageous.”

Like other states, Nevada has a shield law that covers legitimate news reporting activities. The law prevents police, prosecutors and other officials from forcing reporters to reveal anonymous sources or turn over their newsgathering materials.

But journalists in the United States are rarely murdered in connection with their work, and the Nevada judge overseeing the case said there was little precedent to help guide the best practice for dealing with this specific circumstance.

The judge ultimately affirmed police, prosecutors and Telles’ defense attorneys are entitled to relevant electronic files, but acknowledged that certain steps needed to be taken so that unrelated files aren’t accidentally disclosed.

To that end, the judge said a three-person team appointed by the court would be tasked with reviewing the contents of German’s phone. She added that she was leaning toward drafting two high-ranking police officers to examine the files, something that the news outlets said would be impractical.

The issue may ultimately be reviewed by the Nevada Supreme Court.