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Nevada Supreme Court blocks police search of slain journalist’s computers

A three-judge panel says the newspaper is entitled to quarantine sensitive work-related files before police can search the devices.

A three-judge panel says the newspaper is entitled to quarantine sensitive work-related files before police can search the devices.

Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German (left) and Clark County, Nevada Public Administrator Robert Telles (right) appear in an undated photographs. (Handout photo courtesy Las Vegas Review-Journal, left; Photo courtesy Robert Telles Re-Election Campaign, right/Graphic by The Desk)

The Nevada Supreme Court issued a ruling on Friday that blocks police officers from searching the personal cell phone and computers of a murdered journalist as they try to develop evidence against the main suspect in their case.

The order, written by Nevada Supreme Court Justices Elissa Cadish, Linda Bell and Kristina Pickering, said the state’s journalism shield law precludes officers from seeking and enforcing a search warrant to comb through the personal devices of Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German.

German was fatally stabbed near his suburban Las Vegas home last year. Police arrested former Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles as a suspect. German had covered several scandals involving Telles and his county office prior to the killing.

Officials at the Review-Journal initially praised police for their diligent investigation that led to the arrest. But they objected to a move by police and attorneys involved in the Telles case after prosecutors sought a search warrant to examine devices seized from German’s home.

Editors at the newspaper raised concerns that allowing police, prosecutors and defense attorneys to access files on German’s devices could reveal the identity of closely-held sources the reporter relied upon for his investigative stories.

“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. “If it’s okay to kill a journalist so that everything the journalist dedicated himself to [can be revealed], that would be outrageous.”

Last October, a magistrate judge issued a tentative order blocking the issuance of a broad search warrant, but affirmed that police, prosecutors and defense attorneys were entitled to obtain files from German’s devices that were relevant to the case.

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 Review-Journal later proposed a plan that would have allowed officials at the newspaper to search German’s devices first, which would give them the ability to quarantine his sensitive work material before police could access the files needed for both the prosecution and the defense. (Telles is now representing himself in the case.)

The matter ultimately wound up before the Nevada Supreme Court, which affirmed that the state’s shield law was not absolute, in that it could be superseded by a suspect’s right to receive and review evidence that could aid in their defense.

But the justices also said allowing police to search through the files before the newspaper had a chance to exclude sensitive information related to anonymous sources used by German would irreparably harm the newspaper’s ability to keep their sources confidential. To that end, the justices agreed that the Review-Journal’s plan was the better option, and they directed a magistrate judge to enforce it.

Executives at the newspaper said they were pleased with the decision.

“The Nevada Supreme Court has firmly upheld the press protections that allowed Jeff German to become one of the best-sourced, most-trusted journalists in the state,” Glenn Cook, the executive editor at the Review-Journal, said in a statement. “Most importantly, the court ruled that Nevada’s statutory shield for newsgathering materials and confidential sources does not die when a reporter is killed. And the court also clearly held that allowing [police] and the district attorney to review materials to decide for themselves whether press privilege applies is like the fox guarding the hen house.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).