North Dakota Investigator Forced to Return Reporter's Phone After Unlawful Confiscation

A North Dakota police investigator, Charissa Remus, was forced to return a reporter's phone after unlawfully confiscating the device, the state's Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Wednesday.

Stenehjem said that Remus, an agent for the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), violated state law by taking the phone of Tom Simon, 62, who works for Williston Trending Topics News Radio Live and Coyote 98.5, without a valid warrant.

Remus had filed an affidavit saying there was reason to believe the phone had evidence of a crime. Northwest District Judge Benjamin J. Johnson signed a search warrant based on the affidavit, which only identified Simon's phone through its number.

Kevin Chapman, Simon's attorney, asked for a copy of Remus' affidavit. As of Wednesday afternoon, he had not been given one. Johnson refused to comment, according to the Associated Press.

Simon had been reporting on closed-door meetings regarding a school district superintendent's departure that are being investigated by Williston, North Dakota, police.

During one of the meetings on Monday, Remus asked Simon to name his sources then ordered him to turn over his phone. Simon gave it to Remus, scared he would be arrested and unaware of his rights.

But under North Dakota's shield law, information acquired by a journalist is unable to be seized unless there is a court hearing on whether withholding the information would lead to a miscarriage of justice There was no such hearing before Remus confiscated Simon's phone.

Stenehjem told the Associated Press that the BCI granted the warrant for a "variety of cellphones" in this case, and "some were unaware that Simon was protected by shield law." He said Simon's phone was inspected.

Phone, Unlawful Confiscation, Shield Law
A North Dakota police investigator, Charissa Remus, was forced to return a reporter's phone after unlawfully confiscating the device, the state's Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Wednesday. Above, old used phones are pictured. Getty Images

Stenehjem said the BCI is often asked to help police and sheriff's departments, but generally the cases involve high-profile crimes such as drug dealing, child pornography and human trafficking.

"We assist local law enforcement. That's what BCI is," Stenehjem said. "If there are conflicts on the local level, we try to accommodate."

Simon, who describes himself as a reporter "who does news the old-fashioned way," said he did not receive an apology and that "the people" deserve one for what he characterized as an attempt to intimidate reporters and their sources.

"When you do this kind of thing, it has a chilling affect," Simon said. "What it says in essence is that if you talk to Tom Simon, the reporter, here's what's going to happen to you. That is very dangerous for the reporter and the public because the public has the right to know what's going on with their elected officials."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.