Media project shows inconsistent tracking of sealed warrants
When North Carolina courts issue warrants to search homes or private property during criminal investigations, records of that process are supposed to be public with rare exceptions.
But an examination by a dozen North Carolina news outlets found state courts typically don’t track how often they keep these records secret. And although they contend that sealing search warrants is uncommon, many clerks, district attorneys and judges can’t say how often it happens.
Journalists requested records and surveyed court officials in 30 counties – rural and urban, wealthy and less prosperous – and found inconsistent approaches to sealing search warrants that persist nearly a decade after an effort to standardize the process and make it more transparent.
Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition and assistant journalism professor at Elon University, said it’s sometimes necessary to seal records.
“However, it is critical for the public to have a sense of how often and in what types of cases judges seal records from public view,” Fuller said.
North Carolina law dictates that once a warrant is executed and returned to the court, anyone — whether it’s a reporter, a suspect or an interested citizen — should be able to access it, unless a judge seals it.
Investigators are required to get a warrant from the courts in most cases before conducting a search. They must explain what they’re looking for and demonstrate probable cause.
Making the warrant public, says Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, acts as a check on the incredible authority of the state.
“The public has the right and needs to have the ability to review the exercise of that authority,” Freeman said.
District attorneys say they must meet a high bar in the rare instances that a judge seals a search warrant.
Temporarily sealing a search warrant can be necessary, prosecutors say, when investigators need time to build their cases before tipping off suspects.
In Rockingham County, Superior Court Judge Stanley L. Allen said he hasn’t signed many orders to seal information, though doing so can help law enforcement conduct searches or protect the identity of an undercover police officer. In some cases, he said, a seal is used “so the bad guys won’t find out about it.”
In Johnston County, District Attorney Susan Doyle said that, to her knowledge, her office had only filed one motion to seal in 2019 – and that was to protect victims and witnesses in a gang-related case with four co-defendants.
“We rarely file any motions to seal,” Doyle said. “However, that is a tool that becomes necessary when the safety of victims and witnesses is at stake.”
Franklin County Clerk of Superior Court Patricia Chastain estimates that judges there seal between one and two warrants per year, on average.
District Attorney Greg Newman, the chief prosecutor for Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties, said the rare instances in which he seeks a seal most often deal with victims through the Department of Social Services.
“There’s no one just agreeing to seal records for no good reason,” Newman said.
And in Mecklenburg County, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Bob Bell said he couldn’t remember the last search warrant he put under seal.
“It’s anything but routine,” Bell said.
Still, court officials in almost all of the 30 counties surveyed said they had no way to track sealed warrants or provide a specific number, Statewide, the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts “has no application that tracks the issue of sealed search warrants,” spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said.
Wake County is an exception. Every sealed warrant is logged, noting the case, the date the order was signed and when the seal expires. That order was revised and refined following a 2008 dispute between the district attorney and news outlets over sealed search warrants in a high-profile murder case.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that while temporary seals were justifiable, trial courts should not withhold public records from public inspection unless it is in the interest of the “proper and fair administration of justice” or where “the openness ordinarily required of our government will be more harmful than beneficial.”
In Mecklenburg County, motions to seal search warrants occur in a hearing unannounced to the public. Once in place, a seal is rarely removed. According to county data, slightly more than 2 percent of about 4,200 warrants were sealed in 2018 and 2019.
No other counties surveyed by reporters were able to point to any similar tracking system.
This story was reported by Jonathan Drew, of The Associated Press; Kate Martin, of Carolina Public Press; Doug Miller and Michael Gordon, of The Charlotte Observer; Chris Day and Julian Eure, of The Daily Advance; Paul Woolverton, of The Fayetteville Observer; Josh Shaffer, of The News & Observer; Amelia Harper, of the Rocky Mount Telegram; Ann McAdams and Brandon Wissbaum, of WECT-TV; Jenn Emert, of WLOS-TV; Tyler Dukes, of WRAL-TV; and Jason deBruyn, of WUNC.