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Knock LA’s Suit Against Sheriff’s Department Ends With Unsealing of Search Warrants

LASD searched protesters’ phones and other property after arrests at a Dijon Kizzee demonstration in August 2020. 

Two LAUSD deputies wearing full uniform, helmets, a face shield, and a mask. The left one is holding a transparent shields saying "SHERIFF" and the right one a weapon pointed to the ground.
LASD deputies in a skirmish line outside the Hall of Justice June 2021. (Photo: Joey Scott | Knock LA)

Knock LA, along with the First Amendment Coalition, has won a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). The lawsuit unsealed the department’s search warrant and statement for probable cause to search used during the protests in August 2020, following the killing of Dijon Kizzee at the hands of LASD deputies. LASD used the warrant to search journalists’ and protesters’ phones and other property. For the past two years, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has fought in court to prevent the search warrants from being unsealed. Now, newly elected sheriff Robert Luna has stopped fighting the lawsuit and allowed the documents to be released. 

During the four consecutive days of protest in late August and early September 2020, LASD attacked protesters and journalists outside the Compton Sheriff’s Station using flash bangs, pepper balls, and 40 mm foam rounds. On the fourth night, after LASD had called an unlawful assembly, several protesters — who were fleeing the protest as deputies shot and injured them with 40mm foam rounds and pepper balls — were arrested and cited with failure to disperse, conspiracy to riot, and conspiracy to commit assault on a peace officer. The district attorney later rejected the charges.

LASD filed a search warrant for the seized property of the 16 protesters and journalists arrested that night. The search warrant requested permission to search the arrestees’ phones, including contact lists, messages, photos, and GPS data related to the alleged crimes. LASD also requested to search protesters’ browser histories, search terms, and financial information. 

The statement for probable cause to search includes the term “rioters” to describe those arrested that night, but authorities offered no evidence that riots had actually occurred on any of the four nights of protest. Written by a detective assigned to LASD’s Fraud and Cyber Crimes Bureau, the statement cites the possession of commonplace items found at protests — such as bullhorns, cellphones, helmets, and first aid kits — as items that differentiate rioters from peaceful protesters. According to the statement, “rioters” used phones and bullhorns to coordinate attacks on “high-value targets” and “law enforcement.” 

Photos of items taken from protesters are included as evidence in the search warrant. The images depict sunglasses, a plastic container with various first aid supplies, protest signs, and a deputy holding up a foam shield covered in black duct tape. The press pass of a journalist who was arrested and assaulted that night is also among the items pictured. 

Journalist Pablo Unzueta is cited in the search warrants and his phone and camera are listed as evidence to be searched. LASD stopped and arrested him six blocks away from the protest as he was walking back to his car to leave the protest. It took several weeks for his camera and phone to be returned. When the camera was returned, it was missing its memory card, and with it, all the photos from that night’s protest. LASD also searched Unzueta’s phone. 

“It’s scary to think how easily they were able to bypass and get a search warrant. It could also set a precedent for a violation of our First Amendment rights and an invasion of privacy. Those unsealed documents are invasive,” Unzueta said about the unsealed warrants. 

Unzueta sued LASD, and the county agreed to settle his case for $90,000, while the department denied any wrongdoing. 

With the documents unsealed, the public is now able to see the problematic rationale used to justify the sheriff’s searches of personal property. David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said of the warrant’s unsealing: “While we are grateful the public can finally see these documents, they should have been able to do so long ago. There can be no real accountability without knowledge — what did the police tell the judge who issued this warrant? Now this crucial question can be answered, and accountability for any unjustified arrest and seizure can at long last begin.”

The unsealed documents are available to the public thanks to the efforts of the First Amendment Coalition and Susan Seager, who represented Knock LA in the lawsuit. Knock LA will continue to publish records to provide more transparency to the public about its institutions.