Police officers in New Jersey used a search warrant to seize a "piece of evidence" at the center of a local newspaper's investigation into alleged corruption at a city agency, the paper's editor said.
The New Brunswick Police Department on Tuesday executed a search warrant that allowed them to seize a water meter from the New Brunswick Today office that was part of the newspaper's ongoing investigation into the New Brunswick Water Utility, the paper's editor, Charles Kratovil, told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. Media advocates described the actions of law enforcement as "incredibly disturbing" and a way to "intimidate reporters" from reporting on activities of the city and those in power.
After a 13-minute interaction with Kratovil, which he recorded, two officers left with the water meter that had been provided to the newspaper by a confidential source, according to a press release from New Brunswick Today. Police were able to seize the property after getting a a search warrant signed by Superior Court Judge Colleen M. Flynn. Kratovil said that the water meter in question was "proof that a crime had been committed" according to a former utility employee.
The officers and the search warrant indicated that the water meter was "stolen property."
Kratovil said that police Capt. JT Miller said a police investigation began after someone at the utility watched a Dec. 16 live Facebook broadcast by the newspaper, which carried a segment featuring the water meter. The utility then reported the meter "missing," Kratovil said, adding that he intended for an independent agency to test if the meter had been tampered with as part of their investigation into allegations of corruption at the utility.
While the search warrant declined the police's request to seize the paper's video camera, it allowed the officers "to search for and seize a memory card or other medium" on which the video featuring the water segment had been shot. However, because it was a Facebook live video, there was no such card for the officers to remove.
"The execution of this questionable warrant is a very serious concern, and not only because the item taken had the potential to support or prove allegations of corruption in the Water Utility's Billing and Meter Reading Division," Sean Monahan, the co-founder and publisher of New Brunswick Today, said in a statement. "Even more alarming was the revelation that police were originally hoping to also seize our video camera, simply because it had been used in the production of a news broadcast featuring the water meter."
Miller, the police captain, told BuzzFeed News that the water meter belonged to the city and had been reported stolen from the utility. He said the police had been conducting a months-long criminal investigation into the utility and that they needed the water meter back for their own evidence.
Miller said that he spoke to Kratovil twice on the phone, asking he turn over the water meter “since it was city property and didn’t belong to him.” He said that Kratovil indicated that he would not turn it over until his own investigation was complete, but had agreed to speak to a detective about it.
Miller said that he later told Kratovil that police were not looking to charge him as he had not stolen the water meter himself.
When Kratovil refused to turn it over, Miller said they obtained a search warrant and seized it.
Mark Lavenberg, the utility Director, told BuzzFeed News that he had reported the water meter stolen, but directed all inquiries to a spokesperson who further referred the matter to the police department.
"Any attempt by a government or a police department to intimidate journalists or to discourage reporting is very troubling," Mike Rispoli of Free Press — a national media advocacy organization — told BuzzFeed News.
Rispoli, the journalism campaign director for Free Press in New Jersey, said that the police department's actions were "incredibly disturbing."
"It's very clear that the city of New Brunswick's targeting of New Brunswick Today is meant to intimidate reporters as well as any sort of investigation into the activities of both the city and the specific case of the Water Utility," Rispoli said, adding that Kratovil and his team were doing "very good watchdog reporting in the city through their investigation of alleged misconduct at the Water Utility."
Rispoli said they were trying to determine whether Kratovil would be protected under New Jersey's shield law — which protects sources and newsgathering materials.
"I do very much think that this is press freedom case and that the confiscation of the water meter was a violation of the rights afforded to journalists through the course of news gathering," he said.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Miriam Ascarelli, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said, "NJ-SPJ takes the execution of search warrants in newsrooms seriously. We'll be watching this situation closely.''
Rispoli said that it was "definitely a possibility" that Kratovil could be charged with a crime, and said the Free Press would be willing to provide Kratovil with legal assistance. He pointed out that as New Brunswick Today is a small, hyperlocal media outlet, and pursuing legal challenges would be a financial burden.