NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The decision by a landlord on Friday to allow news reporters into the home of the couple who massacred 14 people in California provoked outrage on social media but likely broke no laws, legal and media experts said.
In an unusual scene carried live by major television networks, dozens of journalists, including Reuters employees, swarmed through the townhouse where Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Farook had lived with their six-month-old daughter.
Malik, 29, and Farook, 28, were killed in a shootout with police hours after the attack at a social services agency in San Bernardino on Wednesday, during which 14 people were killed and 21 were wounded.
The landlord, Doyle Miller, used a crowbar to pry away plywood that was barricading the door, and told reporters the Federal Bureau of Investigation had cleared the apartment and said he could open it.
Reporters rifled through documents, picked up baby toys and thumbed through family photos, all live on television. Neighbors also appeared to freely enter the home.
The townhouse contained several religious books, including a children’s book called “Islamic Manners,” and a tapestry on the wall bearing Arabic script. A crib with several colorful blankets and a prayer rug were inside a baby’s room.
Negative reaction on social media was swift and widespread.
Wesley Lowery, a national security reporter for the Washington Post, on Twitter called the scene “a massive failure of two vital institutions - media and law enforcement.”
Mohammad Abuershaid, an attorney for the family, said they felt that the media’s entry into the house was “an invasion of privacy.” He said photographers and camera crews were “taking unacceptable pictures of private things in the house, such as family photos and clothing.”
“It was kind of like a blitz,” he said, adding that the FBI “should have had better control over this house.”
Some questioned how agents could have finished searching the townhouse, as part of what the FBI is describing as a “federal terrorism investigation,” in just 24 hours. At one point, as CNN aired live video of the apartment, the network’s analyst, Harry Houck, said he had “chills down my spine” that reporters were handling potential evidence.
“Now you have thousands of fingerprints all over inside of this crime scene,” he said.
In response to Reuters, Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles, said it was not a “crime scene” and that it was irresponsible for news organizations to suggest the agency had not taken enough time to search the townhouse. At 24 hours, the search was actually longer than the typical property search, she said.
“We did a very thorough search and took our time and completed it,” she said. “There are cases where we need to preserve a location, but that’s extremely rare.”
The constitution mandates that the FBI release private property to the owner once it completes its search, said Rory Little, a former U.S. Justice Department official.
Representatives for local police departments, including the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, said the FBI controlled the crime scene.
Karen Carrera, a San Francisco attorney who has represented tenants, said the landlord could theoretically face legal action from the Farook estate because California law requires landlords to preserve a tenant’s belongings. But, she said, it was unclear whether damages could be collected if no items were taken.
Miller told reporters he allowed the media to enter but said he was surprised at how “overwhelming” the scene quickly became.
News organizations likely would not be legally liable for going in with the landlord’s permission, said Robert Drechsel, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, said newsgathering is also exempted from state law regarding the commercial use of images.
The only potential legal issue, experts said, could be showing the personal information of living people, such as the social security card and driver’s license belonging to Farook’s mother that MSNBC briefly displayed on camera.
Regardless of the law, Dreschel said, the decision to carry live coverage while reporters examined personal items not clearly connected to the shooters, such as photographs of family members, raised ethical questions, he said.
“What great new information and insight did this provide that made it so important that not only everyone rush in, in a big herd, but also put this on-air live and show personal items?” Drechsel said.
MSNBC immediately began trending on social media after showing the mother’s identification cards, as outraged commenters faulted the network for disregarding privacy.
The network said in a statement that it had entered with permission from the landlord. And, it added, “We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.”
A spokesman for Reuters said its journalists had entered with consent and “focused our reporting on the images and aspects of the scene that are newsworthy.”
Representatives for CNN and Fox News said they had permission and exercised editorial judgment in refraining from showing sensitive information such as identification cards and photographs.
Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Dan Levine in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Rory Carroll in Redlands, California,; Timothy Reid in San Bernardino,; Curtis Skinner in San Francisco, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Angela Moon in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Amy Stevens, Toni Reinhold