Monday, April 16, 2007

Don't conceal search warrant affidavits!

Of bad bills that are moving at the Lege this session, a particularly ugly one I've not given as much attention as it deserves is a Senate bill up in tomorrow's House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee - SB 244 by Williams/Riddle , which Grits discussed previously here - which would close records to the press and the public that it makes available to crooks!

SB 244 would allow prosecutors to petition for judges to seal records from the public related to search warrant affidavits, which are one of the few windows into police searches that provide accountability to the press and the public that searches weren't improper and based on reliable evidence.

Supposedly this would only be done when revealing the informatin would compromise a wiretap or burn a confidential informant. But the final line in the bill declares (for obvious due process reasons) that no such order may "affect the right of a defendant to discover the contents of an affidavit"!!

In other words, the alleged crook gets to know about the wiretap, they get to know about the confidential informant and what information they gave. So who does the bill conceal the information from? The press and the public. That's all. Assuming law enforcement has the right person, the real crook will still have all the information the bill assumes might compromise an investigation.

That's an aburd scheme - pure CYA with no public policy purpose other than to defer public scrutiny of police searches. This committee has already heard SB 244's companion by Rep. Riddle (HB 1011, discussed here) and did not move the bill out of committee. They should let this one stall, too. As I wrote when that bill was heard:
this authority would be used more often as a PR maneuver to protect law enforcement's ass than it will to protect investigations - to put off inquiries by the media and public when something goes wrong, at least until the heat dies down.
This bill only benefits those who want to conceal information from the press and the public that the bad guys already possess. It's good for crooks but bad for democracy.

See related Grits posts below about 2005 legislation by then-Criminal Jurisprudence Chair Terry Keel aiming to stop counties from concealing these records. That bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. I hope this house committee returns the favor with SB 244.

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