Imagine a dozen police officers descend on a neighbor’s house, tear the place apart, and cart away computers, books, and box after box of documents. Wouldn’t that arouse curiosity?
That neighbor may never be charged with a crime, may never testify in any court case, and the only way to ferret what prompted the raid is to read the search warrant that authorized it. Though there has been a big increase in the number of search warrants granted by Superior Court in SLO County during the past decade, there has been an inordinate denial of public access to the information they contain, compared to Santa Barbara, Monterey, and Ventura Counties.
In 2000, of the 195 search warrants the court issued, 50 were sealed from disclosure. In 2009, roughly half of all search warrants—170 of 344—remained sealed after execution, essentially secret, according to Jan Michael, executive secretary for SLO Superior Court.
Search warrants are authorized by a judge in response to a request from law enforcement and unless sealed by the court are later available for public scrutiny. If search warrants are sealed, the information within can be accessed only by court order.
Superior Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly pointed out a judge can seal a search warrant only by first determining law enforcement has substantiated good reason to override the right of public access and there’s substantial probability the overriding interest would be prejudiced if the warrant is not sealed. Sealing the document must be the very last resort to preserve that interest.
When search warrants are available to the public, much information is usually redacted—blacked out—by the court clerk, as required by law, including such confidential data as addresses of people who are incidental to the search, telephone numbers, driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers, birth dates, places of employment, employee identification numbers, mothers’ maiden names, bank account numbers, and credit-card numbers. To obtain information from a specific warrant, the address and date of the search must be known.
According to Ventura County Court Program Manager Kelly O’Dell, the percentage of sealed warrants there increased only slightly during the past decade. Of the 333 search warrants issued in 2000, 76 were sealed (23 percent); of the 798 authorized in 2009, 239 were sealed (30 percent).
Gary Blair, the executive officer for Santa Barbara Superior Court, said there’s been only a small bump in sealed warrants in that jurisdiction. Of the 269 search warrants executed in 2009, 78 were sealed (29 percent). That is up from 2000, when 52 of the total 298 were sealed (18 percent), but the increase pales in comparison to SLO County. Blair pointed out these figures apply only to the southern division of the county, and do not include search warrants executed in Santa Maria; data which were not at hand by press time. A safe bet in calculating a figure for the entire county, Blair said, would be to double the figures for the southern division.
Figures provided by Dawn Rovella, an administrative assistant in the Court Executive Office at Monterey Superior Court, indicated 305 search warrants were issued in 2000, 16 of which were sealed and 338 search warrants were issued in 2009, 54 of which were sealed.
Why is SLO County so secretive? Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn has an explanation for why requests to seal search warrants have soared. “Dope and gang investigations would be one obvious reason,” he told New Times. “Some of these types of investigations can take years to get to the point where we’re actually searching property and the entire investigation can be negatively affected in one second, if the wrong person were to access that public search warrant.”
Chad Pfarr, a detective and 10-year veteran of the San Luis Obispo Police Department, added sexual assault and fraud cases to that list of investigations that typically necessitate a search warrant remain sealed.
“I know that four or five years ago, we weren’t completely sealing all sexual assault warrants, where an alleged victim says something happened in a suspect’s house and we go in and search that property for evidence,” Pfarr said. “But now it’s more common for us just to seal the entire thing because even a suspect’s name or the address can give away the entire case and possibly jeopardize the victim.”
Pfarr also said the SLOPD has seen a jump in investigations of fraud, where search warrants are necessary to secure evidence from computers, phone records, and bank statements; information deemed non-public, as dictated by California Penal Code 964.
Finally, San Luis Obispo Police Captain Ian Parkinson pointed to the big one: safety. “Obviously,” he said, “having that information out there, especially before [a search warrant is] executed is a real risk to our officers.”
Beyond those concerns, there are few other explanations proffered for the constraints on SLO County search warrant information. Parkinson said increased attention by the media could be a factor. Pfarr said he has witnessed more of a proactive as opposed to reactive approach in his department’s investigations in the last ten years. Bryn had another theory: “I recall at some point there was concern we were getting leaks out of the court and it is my understanding that several years ago there were unauthorized releases of information.” However, when a search warrant is sealed, not even court staff can gain access.
In September of 2009, sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant at the desk of Juvenal Marin, a low-level clerk at the SLO County Courthouse. Marin, 24, of Santa Maria, allegedly sold confidential court information, including details contained in search warrants, to an informant. Marin pleaded guilty to one felony count of removing, mutilating, and falsifying public records; resigned from his position at the court; and was sentenced to 75 days in jail. Authorities contend the leaked information never compromised investigations.
Since the Marin incident, Matherly and Michael, with input from law- enforcement agents, have redefined court policies to limit employee access to search warrants, which now sit in a locked file cabinet in Matherly’s office. Only Matherly and her executive secretary have keys. ∆
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.