LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A Las Vegas Metropolitan police detective tapped into some data on murdered investigative reporter Jeff German’s phone shortly after he died, a lawyer for the department admitted in court Wednesday.
“There was a preliminary search of the phone… in the immediate aftermath of finding the body,” Matthew Christian, a lawyer for Metro, said.
After the two-hour hearing, District Court Judge Michelle Leavitt said she was “inclined to deny” the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s request that she sanction the department for searching one of German’s phones.
Lawyers for the Review-Journal also alleged police stonewalled their requests to discuss a process where Metro and the newspaper could figure out what information on German’s devices might be covered by German’s rights under the U.S. Constitution and the Nevada shield law.
The law offers journalists wider protections against the inspection and dissemination of newsgathering materials.
Robert Telles faces a murder charge in German’s death in September.
Leavitt said imposing such sanctions could “affect the criminal case adversely.” She instead said she was inclined to “impose a protocol wherein a protective would be in place in order to protect the rights of the parties.”
The newspaper was asking the court to appoint a special master to approve the evidence in order to protect privileged information. Lawyers for Metro objected on several grounds, including that the newspaper’s assertions were less important than Telles’s constitutional rights as a criminal defendant charged with first-degree murder.
But attorneys for the Review-Journal said that a journalist’s First Amendment rights to keep newsgathering information private are paramount and that the privilege does not die.
“The position of the defendants in this case threatens to undermine the primary rationale that has led to the development of that privilege,” attorney Ashley Kissinger, who represents the Review-Journal, said. “That is a privilege that exists in 42 states, by state statute, and a vast majority of federal appellate courts have held that the privilege exists under the federal first amendment to the constitution as well. And the Nevada Constitution, the Nevada Supreme Court has held that the same protections under the First Amendment apply under the free speech provision of the Nevada Constitution. “
Leavitt said she did not think the Metro lawyers’ behavior, Christian’s in particular, ran afoul of any legal standard.
“I don’t think you misrepresented,” Leavitt told Christian. “I don’t think there was any intentional misrepresentation”
“Of course, I didn’t misrepresent anything,” Christian said. “Why would I?”
The other attorney arguing on behalf of Metro said that the judge’s decision of who should be allowed to review what, if any data is considered newsgathering information, would impact Telles’s right to a fair trial.
“We want Mr. Telles to have no filter between himself and any potentially exculpatory information,” Pamela Weckerly, Clark County’s chief deputy district attorney, said. “It’s not on the defendant to tell anybody, let alone the state, or some special master, what the anticipated defense is going to be. He’s entitled to not only exculpatory information but anything that might lead to exculpatory information.”
“I have a lot of concerns about him not having direct access to potentially exculpatory information,” she said.
Leavitt’s findings Wednesday were likely to send the lawyers to the Nevada Supreme Court to continue the case.
“Now there’s an injunction in place and a murder investigation has come to a screeching halt, which that’s not good public policy,” Leavitt said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”