S.F. cops may have gone too far in seizing DJ gear at underground parties

San Francisco DJs at underground parties in SOMA are claiming that their equipment is being unfairly seized, and in some cases being held beyond a reasonable amount of time, by the San Francisco Police Department. A national electronic-rights organization is investigating the claims.

Over the past six months, music fans who have been spinning records — or even just attending friends' events — claim their laptops, soundboards, and mixers have been taken by the cops in police raids. The busted gatherings include an illegal dance party, an artist fundraiser, and a private Halloween bash. While it's unclear whether the lack of official permits was enough reason to close down all these parties, the bigger question is why the police are seizing and holding private property that DJs and attendees use as valuable tools for making their art and living.

Mike Holmes, aka DJ White Mike, was a recent victim of an SFPD sweep. On Halloween night, he DJed at the Beauty Bar and then hit a friend's costume party at a SOMA loft. He stored his bag, which held his laptop, in the DJ booth to prevent it from getting swiped. Ten minutes later, around 2:30 a.m., he says the police arrived and announced that they were taking all the laptops in the warehouse space. “I tried to explain that I wasn't even playing at the party,” he says. Nonetheless, his computer was seized by a cop who identified himself as part of a “task force,” who told him that he shouldn't expect to get his laptop back “for at least three months.” Other DJs at the party claim to have received similar warnings — as well as threats of jail time, if they were seen DJing at warehouses again — from officers who said they were part of a task force.(The SFPD claims it does not have a specific task force looking at underground parties, but it does routine checks in the SOMA area, sometimes with other agencies such as the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, for permit and other violations.)

Holmes had DJ gigs beginning the Wednesday after Halloween and couldn't afford to lose his computer, so he bought a new laptop. Five days later, his original computer was returned by the police. He claims he was told by the SFPD that there had been no reason to hold it in the first place.

DJs Justin Credible and Matthew Higgins were at the same Halloween party as Holmes. At press time, they were part of a small group still waiting to get their laptops back. Neither DJ was arrested or charged, and yet they're in limbo about when they'll see their computers again. Credible says she wasn't even using her laptop to play music when police arrived — she was using CDs — but was told to take it out of her bag and hand it over.

In July, another laptop seizure apparently happened to attendees of another SOMA arts space, where a benefit for a sculptor — with only 50 people in attendance — was broken up by the cops around 10:15 p.m. Skot Kuiper, who has organized various projects at the warehouse, says the police gave no reason for their presence — he guesses they'd seen a flier for the event — and they grabbed CD players, computers, mixers, and sound equipment. Benefit volunteers, who were not charged with any crimes, spent three months trying to get their laptops back.

Credible, a veteran San Francisco DJ, is especially distraught over losing her computer. “I literally have not been able to work,” she says. “I just want my property back.” As with most modern professionals, her computer is vital to her ability to earn an income. She uses it for her music, temp work, and her work tutoring children: “I feel like someone cut off my right arm.”

Higgins says his biggest concern is privacy. His computer wasn't locked at the time it was seized, and he has spent the days since Halloween remotely changing every password possible.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is taking on Credible's and Higgins' cases. The San Francisco–based organization strives to protect privacy as it relates to computer and Internet technology and does a lot of work with computer searches and seizures. Civil liberties director Jennifer Granick says she's concerned about the recent laptop grabs because they've apparently been done without arrests being made. She explains that police can seize the property of someone who is being arrested, and if, say, alcohol is being sold illegally or people have weapons in their possession, cops can confiscate those items. “You can't just go to a party and say, 'You can't have a party because it's after hours and you don't have a permit,' and just take people's property,” she adds. She points out that taking laptops away is “a real interference with people's livelihood, whether they are professional DJs or they work somewhere else.”

The SFPD gave only a very general explanation for the justification behind cops removing computers and other gear from party scenes. “They're being taken as evidence as part of the allegation of the complaint that's taken place and/or crime that's taken place,” says Sergeant Wilfred Williams, who adds that arrests don't have to be made for property to be seized. He explains that sometimes people are simply cited, and then equipment believed to have been used to promote a party is booked into evidence.

Yet there are also DJs who admitted to wrongdoing and still don't have their gear back from the cops. DJ Pee Play, part of the Honey Soundsystem collective, says his crew lost essential parts of their setup — a mixer and CDJs — after they threw a small illegal party in a garage six months ago. He says he has paid a fine for the infraction and is still waiting to get his equipment back. “We've been to court cases, community court — it's like every three weeks having to go to a government office,” he says.

Individual victims have their theories — mostly concerning overzealous officers with anti-speakeasy agendas — about why DJs and others are losing their property at underground parties. Granick says she worries that the SFPD's actions could end up chilling an entire creative class in San Francisco — which is already happening with some of the DJs involved in these raids.

Credible says she had to think twice when a friend asked her to DJ at an art gallery last week. “I feel 'once bitten, twice shy,' kinda thing,” she says, “where I don't want to DJ anymore. I've been DJing for 12 years and I feel like a criminal, and it sucks.”

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