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Judge says news media must release videos, photos that could expose identity of rioters

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A King County judge has said news media outlets must turn over unpublished video and photographs of individuals who took part in recent rioting and looting in Seattle.

In a Thursday ruling, King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee said the Seattle Police Department’s subpoena for video and photos stemming from a May demonstration that turned violent was enforceable, the Seattle Times reported.

The paper was one of the media outlets listed in the police department’s subpoena.

Lee said the department was within its rights to secure those materials as part of an investigation into the theft of police equipment including firearms as well as acts of arson against police vehicles.

The judge found that news agencies did not fall under the auspices of a state shield law that, in many instances, protects them from having police obtain unpublished media materials as part of a criminal investigation.

That said, Lee did put some limitations on the subpoena. He ruled that the police department could only use the images to identify suspects related to the theft of firearms and destruction of SPD vehicles.

Detectives were prohibited, however, from using the materials to identify and pursue charges against anyone merely committing acts of vandalism or lesser crimes, even if they uncovered such incriminating evidence, the Times added.

In addition, the subpoena limits the material police may obtain to professional camera equipment — not reporters’ cell phone pictures and videos.

The judge found that the Seattle Police Department met the burden to overcome the state’s shield law, namely that the images sought were “highly material and relevant” as well as “critical or necessary” to prove something that fulfills a compelling public interest by being revealed.

In particular, Lee found that one compelling interest was the recovery of stolen weapons.

Police also met an additional standard — exhausting all “reasonable and available means” to obtain the materials in another manner, Lee found.

Times Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores blasted the decision, saying she “believes it puts our independence, and even our staff’s physical safety, at risk.”

“The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public,” Matassa Flores said.

“We don’t work in concert with government, and it’s important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover,” she added.

The SPD also reportedly subpoenaed TV stations KIRO7, KING5, KOMO4 and KCPQ13, reports noted.

The ruling comes amid significant increases in violence in the Emerald City.

A week ago, rioting and looting followed what began as a peaceful assembly, with looters breaking into several stores and clashing with police, injuring at least 12 officers.

“Large crowd continuing to march on Pike Street from downtown. Two individuals were arrested outside of the West Precinct. Demonstrators threw rocks, bottles and other items at officers. At least one officer has been transported to the hospital,” the SPD tweeted as the demonstrations turned violent.

Meanwhile, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best pushed back against a new law the socialist-led city council passed this week forbidding police from using pepper spray, tear gas, and other non-lethal devices.

The law was supposed to take effect Sunday, but it was blocked by U.S. District Judge James Robart on Thursday after he issued a temporary restraining order at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Citing the city’s longstanding police consent decree, argued that banning the department’s use of non-lethal crowd-control devices could leave them no choice but to use deadly force.

“I urge you all to use it as an occasion to try to find out where it is we are and where it is we’re going,” Robart said during the emergency. “I can’t tell you today if blast balls are a good idea or a bad idea, but I know that some time a long time ago I approved them.”

Nevertheless, the Seattle P.D. has warned local business owners that because of the law, they’re going to have to fend for themselves.

https://twitter.com/Doranimated/status/1286860380741021696

And Best said Friday she isn’t about to risk her officers’ safety in light of the new law.

“The Council legislation gives officers no ability to safely intercede to preserve property in the midst of a large, violent crowd. Allowing this behavior deeply troubles me…I will never ask our officers to risk their personal safety to protect property without the tools to do so in a safe way,” she said.

Jon Dougherty

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