Media law experts and journalism groups expressed outrage Thursday that Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies obtained phone records from a notable Hollywood gossip journalist during a leak investigation, calling the action a serious violation of the reporter's rights.
Several said they believed that sheriff's investigators violated state and federal law when they obtained a search warrant for the records of TMZ founder Harvey Levin as they tried to identify who gave him details about Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade during a 2006 drunk-driving arrest.
"That's illegal," said Lucy Dalglish, an attorney and executive director of the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Most law enforcement agencies know it's illegal . . . or have a hard time getting a judge signing off on it."
Dalglish and others said such actions threatened the independence of the press and its role as the watchdog of government.
"You can't have a government agency that is supposed to be monitored by the press investigating the press to find out where it got its stories," said attorney Terry Francke, an expert on media law.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said his department consulted a prosecutor before seeking the search warrant. He noted that a judge approved the warrant.
"What we did we believe was legal," he said.
Whitmore said he did not know which judge signed the warrant or which prosecutor was consulted.
The controversy has cast Levin as a 1st Amendment martyr, an unlikely role for a journalist whose website on Thursday included photos of Michael Jackson's children in karate outfits and a feature about whether actress Megan Fox is a good kisser.
Sheriff's officials initially played down the July 28, 2006, arrest of Gibson, but later that day TMZ posted a story about the actor's behavior.
The report detailed profane outbursts by Gibson, an attempt to escape custody and repeated threats against the arresting deputy.
The website also accused sheriff's officials of trying to conceal the actor's conduct from the public.
The news sparked outrage at the actor as well as fierce criticism of the Sheriff's Department, which was accused of giving him special treatment.
The department launched a probe into who leaked the arrest report.
In reviewing the phone records, internal affairs investigators discovered that two brief calls were made to Levin on the day of the arrest from the home of the arresting deputy.
But prosecutors recently declined to file charges against the deputy, concluding that they could not identify who made the calls or who leaked portions of the arrest report.
During the investigation, Levin told deputies he did not pay for the information and would not reveal his source, according to a district attorney's office memo on the case.
After sheriff's investigators got Levin's phone records, they obtained additional warrants to try to identify the callers he spoke with on the day of Gibson's arrest, according to the D.A.'s office memo.
Levin declined to comment to The Times about the search warrants.
Legal experts said the California Constitution protects journalists from being forced to reveal their sources.
State law, they said, also bars judges from issuing search warrants for unpublished information that is gathered by reporters.
District attorney's office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said a sheriff's official overseeing the investigation told her office that the prosecutor assigned to the leak case was the same lawyer investigators consulted before obtaining the warrant.
But Gibbons said no prosecutor was assigned to the case until at least eight months after the search warrant was executed.
She noted that Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has a written policy on search warrants, which says they "cannot be used to obtain the source of any news information."
"He feels strongly about not infringing upon a reporter's rights," Gibbons said.
Linda Bowen, a professor of journalism at Cal State Northridge, described the move to search Levin's phone records as "disturbing," saying it could deter people from talking to reporters about government misconduct.
"It really creates a chilling effect on sources who might otherwise be willing to come forward," said Bowen, president of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"It's really scary when that kind of thing happens," she said.