Residents of Santa Barbara should send the County Public Defender Office a bouquet of roses and a heart-shaped box full of caramel chocolates. The office has discovered a way to use some of the county’s best investigators without having to hire them. How do they do this? Why, they force journalists to do the work that the public defenders are actually paid to do for them.

Following the slew of subpoenas issued by Public Defender Karen Atkins to the Santa Barbara News-Press, Independent and Daily Sound last summer, the Daily Nexus has now received two different subpoenas over a period of one month. Regarding the subpoenas sent to the Sound and Independent, Atkins argued that unpublished photos showing the arrest of her client 14-year-old Ricardo Juarez, who was charged with murder during a gang melee on State Street, were imperative to her case.

The Sound and Independent were unsuccessful in their attempts to stop the subpoenas and a terrible precedent was set. Now, it seems, the Public Defender Office has used these prior rulings as an excuse to subpoena journalists any time they wish and with little cause.

On April 15, Deputy Public Defender Deedrea Edgar attempted to subpoena the Nexus for all notes, sources and interviews concerning the arrest of her client in one of our police blotter stories. The Nexus then received pro bono representation and the subpoena was dropped.

The funny thing is, if the subpoena had gone to court, Edgar would have discovered that our only source, as is common in nearly all police blotter stories across the nation, comes from a police report – a public record that anyone can obtain freely. Ahem, your tax dollars hard at work.

Now the Nexus has received a second subpoena from the same office, but from Deputy Public Defender Kathy Schwinghammer. She demands that we turn over all of our unpublished photos from the Feb. 12 anti-war protest at UCSB. We printed two photos of her client getting arrested and she now thinks we are sitting on a goldmine.

Under the California Shield Law, journalists are given the privilege to protect their sources and unpublished material. In order for an attorney to overturn this privilege, she must be able to prove, among other things, that:

1) The material sought is crucial to her client’s case and that the evidence cannot be gathered from other sources. Well, between 300 and 500 people attended this event. There are plenty of witnesses, blogs and videos on the Web. Also, the police filmed the whole thing. So, why is Schwinghammer wasting her time and your tax dollars on us?

2) The subpoena must not harm the journalist’s ability to gather news. Sorry, but being called into court twice in one month, and perhaps for many more times to come, is kind of distracting. Furthermore, it is really hard to appear objective when plaintiffs, police and district attorneys think you are the public defender’s right hand man.

Are we really better at researching cases than the County Public Defender Office’s own investigators? If that’s the case, maybe some of these people need to be let go. It’s wasting our time and yours, and hey, did we mention, your tax dollars?