New police chief apparently condones policy that critics call illegal and punitive
San Francisco Police Department officers have added a controversial tactic to their aggressive raids on house parties (see "Fun under siege," 4/22/09): they're seizing laptop computers from DJs at the events.
While SFPD officials deny the laptop seizures is a new policy, they admit it has been condoned by Police Chief George Gascón, who took over in August and last month told the Guardian's editorial board he wants to make the SFPD more transparent and accountable to the public (see "New coach, new approach," 10/14/09).
"The police chief is aware that officers are being proactive in gathering evidence," Sgt. Lyn Tomioka told the Guardian when asked about a string of laptop seizures by undercover cops over the last 10 months, most of them in cases in which the DJs weren't even charged with a crime.
Many of the raids have occurred in SoMa, and were spearheaded by undercover officers who penetrated the parties and were followed by uniformed officers. San Francisco Entertainment Commission member Terrance Alan called the crackdown a "disappointing and dangerous trend."
Tomioka said it's a judgment call for officers to seize laptops as evidence of an illegal party, but Alan said the tactic is a punitive measure that proves nothing: "Taking laptops [is] not necessary to prove the underlying crime, and in many cases damages people's ability to earn a living."
One of the most recent raids happened on Halloween. It was about 2:30 a.m. and music was pumping out of a warehouse party on Sixth Street. The people throwing the party had hired a doorman, and attendee Eric Dunn was standing in line waiting to get in.
"We were right at the front of the line," Dunn told the Guardian, when, he said, two plainclothes officers drove up on the sidewalk, jumped out of an unmarked car, and rushed up to the doorman. "[The officers] pretty much started demanding entry right away. The doorman was really polite. He basically told them that you have to know somebody to get into the party."
Dunn said the officers waited until an exiting guest opened the door from the inside and then made their move. "One guy barged in, and the other guy followed. They never asked permission or received permission to enter the building," Dunn said.
Inside, the two undercover officers immediately shut down the event. Justin Miller, a DJ at the event, said she remembers it very clearly. "The cops at that point were telling everybody to leave the party, telling me to turn the music off. I turned the music off. Everyone was quietly leaving."
But Miller said it didn't stop there. One of the undercover officers approached her and asked if she had a laptop. She said she did. "I was a little confused at this point because I didn't know what my laptop had to do with anything. I was playing CDs." She said she pulled her computer out from underneath a table and unzipped it from a case. The officer then "grabbed it from me."
The undercover police officer later identified by witnesses and the evidence receipt as Larry Bertrand instructed Miller to follow him down to the street to get a property receipt for her laptop.
At this point there were uniformed officers on the scene as well. Miller started to cry. "I begged him. I said, 'This is my livelihood. You're talking my laptop. This is my livelihood. I hope you realize that.' He said, 'This is how you're going to learn then, I guess.'"
Miller said Bertrand (who did not return Guardian calls for comment) then told her he was "going to take it upon himself to shut down every illegal party in San Francisco."
She said he then opened the trunk of his car, revealing several other laptops. A person at the party pointed out that one of the laptops belonged to a friend of his, and asked if he could get the property receipt for the laptop. Miller said Bertrand turned to the inquiring person and said, "You will never see this laptop again."
She continued: "He then looked at me and said, 'I'm going to make sure your paperwork gets so tied up that maybe you won't see this laptop until December, January, February, who knows when.' I felt so violated."
Miller has been working as a DJ in the Bay Area, under the name DJ Justincredible, for more than 10 years. She says she's never had any of her equipment confiscated by the police before. But at that party, three DJs had their laptops confiscated, even though none were charged with a crime.
Shortly after the Halloween incident, Miller and the two other DJs who were at the party contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group specializing in technology and privacy issues. Jennifer Granick, a civil liberties lawyer with EFF, said most people haven't heard about this because few of these DJs, if any, ever get convicted of a crime.
"DJs and the police department know that sound equipment and laptops are being unlawfully seized. But the public and the courts haven't heard much about it because every time a DJ asks for a hearing, the cops just give them their property back rather than show up and defend the practice in open court before a judge," she said.
Sean Evans has been working as a DJ in San Francisco, under the name DJ 7, for more than 10 years. He said that over the summer he had his laptop seized by police during an after-hours party in SoMa. He was given no property receipt, and his case was dismissed. But it took him three months to get his computer back.
"To lose our sole means of income, it's a huge setback. It puts us out of work. In this recession, we're struggling, and we need our laptops to get by," he said. Evans grew up in the Bay Area and he said has never had anything like this happen to him before.
Granick argued it is illegal for police to seize property without issuing citations or arrests. She also said there are serious privacy issues at stake. "If we were to find out that the police were doing something else with the laptops, like searching through them or copying the data, we would definitely go to court," she said.
SFPD Sgt. Wilfred Williams said he could not say what was currently being done with the laptops. In general, he said, private events that emit "extraordinary amounts of sound" need permits. And if they don't have the proper permits, he said, property can be seized as evidence, "be it the speakers, be it the laptops, be it a mixer."
Both Tomioka and Williams say the seizures aren't a new policy. "If you look back in time, laptops haven't been used for music," Williams said. "There used to be old types of equipment that was taken in the past. But now laptops are being used. So yes, today, laptops [are] being seized."
Entertainment advocates have called on Mayor Gavin Newsom and Gascón to come forward with an explicit policy concerning these raids and seizures. The Mayor's Office did not respond to Guardian inquiries. Critics of the policy say it's having a chilling effect on nightlife in San Francisco.