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Court Withdraws Warrant in Stolen iPhone Prototype Fiasco

San Mateo Superior Court Judge Clifford Cretan has granted the district attorney’s application to withdraw the warrant used to seize property from the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen. All property seized as a result of the warrant, including Chen’s computers and cameras, have now been ordered to be returned.

It is the latest episode in the long legal drama that began when Chen agreed to purchase what was later confirmed to be a prototype iPhone 4 from Brian Hogan. It soon emerged that the phone belonged to Apple engineer, Robert “Gray” Powell, who left the phone at a bar in Redwood City, CA on March 25. According to earlier reports, Hogan approached several organizations attempting to sell the phone, and Chen agreed to purchase it for $5,000, with $5,000 more promised in the future.

What happened next became headline news around the world, as Gizmodo detailed and dismantled the iPhone 4 prototype on its website. Apple remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout, except to confirm that the iPhone 4 was its property and the company wanted it back.

After an investigation began, Chen, Gizmodo, and Gizmodo’s parent company Gawker Media LLC, all claimed that Chen was safe from any potential prosecution regarding receiving stolen goods, or destroying the property while dismantling it online, due to the shields that protect journalists. Apple supporters claimed that those same protections do not extend to bloggers.

The initial investigation was met with skepticism and left Apple to face a tide of negative PR, but as details began to emerge, it became clear that the case was far more complicated than just Apple looking for retribution, and the San Mateo courts agreed. Shortly after, police raided Chen’s house using the warrant in question.

The warrant for Chen’s house confirmed that the police were pursuing felony charges; the iPhone 4 was being considered as stolen property which Chen received, and that Gizmodo’s online autopsy was being considered vandalism, both of which would be felony charges. Gawker’s attorneys claimed that the seizure of materials from a news organization was inappropriate through just a search warrant, which news organizations have no way to challenge in court. It appeared that a lengthy legal battle over the technicalities of the warrant was about to begin.

Today, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the dismissal of the warrant stems from an agreement between the San Mateo County D.A. and Gawker’s attorneys. In return for the warrant being dropped and Chen’s property being returned, Gawker will give the D.A. any materials that are deemed relevant to the case, and agree to cooperate with the investigation.

As of now, no charges have been filed against Chen or Gawker, but that doesn’t mean that the case is going to go away anytime soon. Without the property itself, it does make it harder to immediately charge Chen with a crime, but police could still subpoena the same material and avoid any legal questions regarding warrants.  Any subpoenas, however, will likely be immediately challenged by Gawker’s lawyers. If the case proceeds, expect plenty more legal wrangling in the months to come.

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