Irvine IPAT Clinic wins release of student journalist’s cellphone seized by deputies

Note: A version of this post originally appeared on the Irvine IPAT Clinic’s website.

The Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology (IPAT) Clinic at UC Irvine School of Law scored a victory on December 18 when the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department released a student journalist’s iPhone that had been seized by deputies and held for three months. The Clinic’s Press Freedom and Transparency team, directed by Adjunct Professor Susan E. Seager, won the return of the cellphone to Pablo Unzueta, a Cal State Long Beach student editor and freelance journalist.

Deputies seized Unzueta’s iPhone and camera on September 8, 2020, when they arrested him while he was covering a protest over the killing of a Black cyclist by sheriff’s deputies in South Los Angeles. Deputies ignored Unzueta when he identified himself as a journalist and arrested him for allegedly failing to disperse after the deputies declared the protest an unlawful assembly. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office said that it was not filing criminal charges against any protestors or journalists arrested during the protest.

“The Sheriff’s Department’s arrest of Pablo and seizure of his camera and cellphone violated Pablo’s First and Fourth Amendment rights,” Professor Seager said. “The seizure of his devices also violated California laws and a federal laws protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ notes and unpublished materials.”

During his arrest, Unzueta said deputies took his iPhone and Nikon D800 digital camera. Deputies returned the camera, but not the memory card. It took three months for the department to release the cellphone. The Clinic is still trying to get the camera memory card back. Unzueta says that the memory card contains two years of work, including freelance photos used by the Voice of OC and Washington Post.

The Clinic wrote a letter to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stating that Unzueta’s arrest and seizure of his camera and cellphone violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights and California statutes protecting journalists. The sheriff’s department’s inspector general, Max Huntsman, has ordered an internal investigation into the arrest of Unzueta and the seizure of his devices.

Unzueta said that deputies handcuffed him, threw him into the bed of a truck filled with pepper spray balls that exploded upon impact, appeared to film him and other arrestees with the deputies’ personal cellphones, and called him a homophobic slur.

“The entire process was very draining and it took a lot of grit and patience,” said Unzueta. “This case could never have been resolved if it weren’t for the Student Press Law Center and the UCI Law IPAT Clinic, who represent and protect the rights of journalists like myself.”

Unzueta was also represented by Professor Katie Tinto, Director of UCI Law’s Criminal Justice Clinic, who was contacted by the Student Law Press Center to represent Unzueta during a criminal court appearance. Tinto won the release of Unzueta’s camera.