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Gawker Media’s Gizmodo site is in for a legal fight with police about whether it has the same legal protections as other mainstream journalists.

In connection with a criminal probe in the case of the lost iPhone prototype, San Mateo police searched the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen and seized six of his computers on Friday night, Gizmodo reported.

Gaby Darbyshire, chief operating officer of Gawker Media in New York, wrote a letter to the San Mateo police department that accused them of breaking California’s journalist shield law. Chen wrote in a post that he arrived home in the evening last Friday to find the police already inside his home, having broken down the door, and exercising a search warrant.

The criminal probe is believed to be under way because Gawker Media acknowledged that it paid $5,000 for the iPhone prototype, which could be considered a stolen good under law. For an analysis of the issues related to paying for news, check out David Carr’s column in the New York Times.

A 27-year-old Apple engineer left the phone at a bar by accident and the finder did not return it to Apple. (California law imposes a duty on the finder of a lost object to try to return it to its owner.) Rather, the finder sold the device to Gizmodo, which gleefully wrote everything it knew about the phone and even tore it apart. Apple asked for the prototype back and Gizmodo sent it. But the criminal probe has now escalated the conflict to a new level.

In practice, the mainstream media are protected from search and seizure under journalist shield laws, which protect the sources of the news organizations. And existing case law cited by Gawker’s Darbyshire suggests that those protections extend to online publications as well. This case could serve to confirm that precedent. Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker, said that his company would let Darbyshire’s letter stand as its response.

[photo credit: Gizmodo]

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