This afternoon, the Seattle Police Department informed the Washington Supreme Court that it is withdrawing its subpoena for local media companies’ photographic and video footage from early summer related to its attempt to track down the man who stole a firearm out of a police car.
SPD has come under fire for issuing the subpoena in the first place, and the media companies challenged the subpoena in court as a violation of the state “shield law.” The police department largely won the first round in the trial court, but the media companies appealed the case directly to the state Supreme Court. Last month the Court issued a stay on the subpoena while it decided whether to take the case.
In its filing today, SPD gave two reasons for withdrawing the subpoena. First, the stay issued by the Court means that even if the department eventually wins the case, it may not get the materials it seeks until some time in 2021 — and the delay significantly diminishes the value of the evidence. Second, on September 4th federal law enforcement officials arrested the man suspected of stealing the firearm. Seattle police tracked him down using the footage already in their possession along with tips from the public. However, according to the court filing, “it now appears that suspect may have already sold the firearm, rendering any further evidence that could later be obtained from the News Media regarding the theft of that rifle on May 30 less likely to result in recovery of that firearm.”
But realistically, SPD would not now get to see any relevant evidence the News Media may possess now until sometime in 2021 or later, even if it wins on appeal. Given that likely delay in getting further evidence regarding the crimes committed on May 30, given the decreasing value of such evidence as time goes on, given the recent developments in the investigation into the theft of the M4 rifle, and in light of its many other priorities, SPD has decided to withdraw the subpoena and not seek enforcement of the Order.
The legal case isn’t quite dead yet: SPD has asked the Court to dismiss it as moot, and there is a tiny chance that the media companies might want to try to get a ruling anyway to set a legal precedent. But the courts may only hear cases that represent “live” controversies, and with the subpoena withdrawn there is nothing left for the courts to decide.
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