If a Utah judge seals a search warrant today, the document is considered private indefinitely — unless the sealing is challenged in court and the judge finds "good cause" that it should be public.
But local journalists have challenged that rule, arguing that the current process keeps what should be public information private.
Now, a proposed change has been presented by the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Rules of Criminal Procedure: Sealed search warrants will become public after six months unless someone seeks, and a judge approves, an order to keep them sealed.
The courts system is now seeking comment on the proposed changes to Rule 40, and members of the public having until Feb. 24 to weigh in. After the public comment period has ended, the committee will have the chance to tweak the proposed change before it is passed on to the Utah Supreme Court for approval.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter/editor Nate Carlisle and KSL Radio news director Sheryl Worsley were behind the push for the rule change, working as representatives of the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Carlisle said he sought a solution after he and other Tribune reporters saw inconsistencies in the treatment of search warrants as public documents in the course of reporting on criminal cases.
"The proposed change increases transparency in Utah while maintaining protections for criminal investigations," Carlisle said. "If police or prosecutors feel it’s necessary to seal a search warrant, they can still pursue a seal, but the proposal affirms that, as a default, search warrants in Utah are public records."
Carlisle and Worsley approached the committee two years ago to recommend the change. Committee Chair Patrick Corum said Wednesday that the 14-person advisory committee began looking for a solution to the journalists’ concerns, while still maintaining a system that allows law enforcement to do their jobs properly. He said he feels the proposed change is a "middle ground" for interested parties.
"We want a rule that works for everybody," Corum said. "There’s clearly the rules and statutes that state these are public documents. There’s a presumption of openness, but there’s also interest in law enforcement doing investigations."
Under the proposed change, if investigators or attorneys want warrants to remain sealed, they must approach the court every six months for up to three years.
After three years, a case can remain sealed indefinitely unless someone challenges the sealing.
Carlisle said the Utah SPJ will continue working with the advisory committee on other transparency initiatives, including making search warrants available online and implementing some type of notification to the public when warrants are sealed.
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