Newspaper Settles Dispute over Seizure of Newsroom Computer and Equipment

Police in New Castle, Pa. seized a computer and several recording devices from the New Castle News on July 25, 2007, saying they were used to record telephone conversations illegally with two local public officials.

The computer was returned when the county district attorney and newspaper struck an agreement on August 8 under which police were allowed to copy the machine’s hard drive without examining its contents, according to The Associated Press (AP).

Under Pennsylvania law, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. section 5703 and 5704, both parties to a phone conversation must consent to its being recorded. Failure to obtain consent is a third-degree felony subject to up to a seven-year prison sentence.

The newspaper’s attorney James Manolis told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) that he believes case law in the state has made an exception for journalists. For reporters to be convicted of a crime under the law, Manolis said, sources have had to prove that they had a reasonable expectation that their comments were not being recorded.

According to the RCFP, under the August 8 agreement the newspaper will draft a written policy requiring reporters to get sources’ consent before recording conversations. Manolis said that the written policy does not represent a change from the unwritten policy the New Castle News already had in place.

The New Castle News reported that the confiscated equipment belonged to reporter Pat Litowitz, who allegedly recorded interviews he conducted with Northwest Lawrence Regional Police Chief Jim Morris and Mahoning Township Supervisor Francis Exposito. Litowitz was pursuing a story about a proposed police training facility in the New Castle area. Litowitz said he made the recordings to ensure accuracy in his reporting.

According to the newspaper, police chief Morris learned of the recordings from his wife, Debbie Wachter Morris, who is a reporter at the newspaper. Wachter Morris said she found out from another reporter that Litowitz had made the recordings, and alerted her husband that he may have been recorded illegally.

Chief Morris contacted the New Castle Police department, a warrant was issued, and police executed the warrant in an unannounced search of the newspaper office on July 25.

According to an August 3 story in the New Castle News, Wachter Morris said she did not believe that her duties as a reporter and the fact that her husband is a police chief raised a conflict of interest.

“I felt an obligation to both,” she said. “I felt if my husband was the victim of an alleged crime, and I was seeing it happen, I felt obligated to bring it to the attention of my employer and my husband as the victim.”

Manolis and New Castle News publisher Max Thomson were critical of the district attorney’s decision to pursue the matter.

“It seems to me the primary reason that … this investigation is being conducted by the commonwealth is because of a conflict between two reporters and the marital relationship between one of those reporters with a member of law enforcement,” Manolis told the newspaper.

Thomson said the investigation “amounts to a monumental waste of investigative and judicial time.”

District Attorney John Bongivengo said sources who know they are talking to reporters have a limited expectation of privacy.

“In this situation … the person [Chief Morris] spoke to is not the actual person who wrote the story. There are other facts involved in this case and to me, whether there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy or not, is essentially a jury question,” Bongivengo said.

Thomson called the seizure “a dangerous intrusion by police to some very profoundly held First Amendment issues,” adding, “There is a large amount of information on the equipment seized that we don’t want police officials to be rummaging indiscriminately through.”

- Patrick File, Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on October 21, 2009 12:28 PM.

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