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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

SFPD Tries to Fire Cop for Protesting Illegal Search of Journalist's Records

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 12:10 PM

click to enlarge Frank Lee, a 24-year SFPD veteran, is on the docket for resisting an order to search a journalist's records - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • Frank Lee, a 24-year SFPD veteran, is on the docket for resisting an order to search a journalist's records

In this week's column, I describe how the San Francisco Police Department is attempting to fire a 24-year veteran for resisting orders to illegally search a journalist's records.

Oakland First Amendment attorney David Greene was astonished by the move: "The right thing to do is not to purposefully and knowingly break the

law ... it does seem odd to me that that decision would be considered grounds

for discipline against an officer."


The quest to fire Officer Frank Lee is even more extraordinary when one considers that the Department has not disciplined six officers whose illegal searches have scuttled 120 criminal cases.

Lee's

dismissal case, currently before the San Francisco Police Commission,

begs the question: Do cops in this town have to conduct illegal searches

to keep their jobs?

Though Lee, up until now, had a clean record, he's operated under the a cloud thanks, ironically, to a by-the-book approach that in any other town might make him a hero. Two decades ago, Lee arrested a drunk driving suspect who happened to be the son of Frank Jordan, the San Francisco mayor who'd previously been chief of police. Lee's superiors accused him of lacking the "decency" to cut the ex-chief's son a break.

The Department's current beef against Lee involves a search warrant to get the records of photojournalist Alex Welsh. Welsh earned national notoriety after he was found by detectives in 2009 snapping photographs at a murder scene. Lee, a former sex-crimes detective, was the lead inspector on that case, and he felt his top priority was to convince Welsh to provide evidence, then take the stand, against the killers of Norris Bennett.

Lee's superiors had other ideas. Lee tells the Police Commission that he was chewed out for wanting to coddle Welsh into providing evidence. Lee quotes his lieutenant saying:

"It's fucking bullshit, your soft bullshit approach. You're not in sex

crimes anymore. You're in homicide. This is the way we do things. I want

that evidence."

In the end, Lee did perform the search, which ended up producing no valuable evidence. Welsh clammed up, citing the portion of the California evidence code that makes journalists' records immune from police search. A judge subsequently declared the search illegal, as Lee had warned it might be.

Rather than issue a mea culpa, Lee's bosses are now trying to have him fired for insubordination for arguing against the search, then not executing it fast enough.

"Once a judge signs a warrant, officers are duty bound to execute them," says Richard Hechler, the SFPD attorney assigned to seek Lee's dismissal.

click to enlarge Richard Hechler, the attorney assigned to prove Lee should be fired for balking at executing an illegal search - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • Richard Hechler, the attorney assigned to prove Lee should be fired for balking at executing an illegal search

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Matt Smith

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