If you have had a search warrant executed at your house, you’re likely to want to know why. If you committed a crime, perhaps it’s obvious why. If not, you’d likely want to see why the government thought you were up to something suspicious.
Christopher Kortlander was in exactly that situation. In 2005 and 2008 the federal government got a warrant and searched his house. He was under investigation, as the Ninth Circuit put it, for unlawfully attempting to sell migratory bird parts and for fraudulently misrepresenting the provenance of historical artifacts for sale.”
Ultimately, the government declined to go forward with charges.
Mr. Kortlander wanted to see the search warrant. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(i) requires that search warrants, and related documents, be kept in the clerk’s office of the district court that they are issued from.
So, Mr. Kortlander asked that district court for copies of those documents.
The United States government opposed that request. It argued that the documents contained information that was collected by the grand jury and, therefore, was secret.
Mr. Kortlander pointed out that he had already seen the information, with his lawyer, during the investigation.
The government then removed it’s objection and said, instead, that it was ok for Mr. Kortlander to see the documents, but only if Mr. Kortlander agrees to “limit dissemination of the material to Kortlander’s personal review and/or for inclusion in any future court filings.” In support of this restriction, the government said that “concerns have been raised that information collected by Kortlander may be posted on web sites.”
You have to admire the use of the passive voice.
The district court, exercising its independent control over the documents that were in its clerk’s office, adopted the government’s suggestion without making any findings to support a restriction of Mr. Kortlander’s ability to distribute the documents.
Mr. Kortlander appealed, and the Ninth Circuit reversed in United States v. Kortlander.
The court of appeals explained that there are two rights of access to court documents – a right under the common law and a First Amendment right. The appellate court held that the common law right required disclosure without restriction. It did not reach the First Amendment argument.
The Ninth Circuit started by observing that
Whether the common law right of access applies to warrant materials after an investigation has ended is a question of first impression in this circuit. We have held that the common law right of access does not apply to warrant materials “during the pre-indictment stage of an ongoing criminal investigation.” Id. at 1221. But we expressly reserved whether the common law right of access applies to warrant materials after “an investigation has been terminated.” Id. We answer that question today, and hold that, as the government concedes, the common law right of access applies under these circumstances. In doing so, we join a number of courts that have reached the same conclusion. See, e.g., In re EyeCare Physicians of Am., 100 F.3d 514, 517 (7th Cir. 1996); In re Newsday, Inc., 895 F.2d 74, 79 (2d Cir. 1990); Baltimore Sun Co. v. Goetz, 886 F.2d 60, 62 (4th Cir. 1989); United States v. Wells Fargo Bank Account Number 7986104185, 643 F. Supp. 2d 577, 583-84 (S.D.N.Y. 2009); In re N.Y. Times Co., 585 F. Supp. 2d 83, 92 (D.D.C. 2008); Commonwealth v.Fenstermaker, 530 A.2d 414, 417-19 (Pa. 1987); see also In re Search Warrant for Secretarial Area Outside Office of Gunn, 855 F.2d 569, 575-76 (8th Cir. 1988) (Bowman, J., concurring).
As the Ninth Circuit explained, quoting, at length, from the Fourth Circuit,* when the government is still investigating, there is an interest in not disclosing warrant documents.
Once the investigation is over, that interest is gone, and the public’s interest in knowing how it’s government requires that the warrant documents be released to the public.
As the Ninth Circuit said, quoting the Eighth Circuit,
public access to documents filed in support of search warrants is important to the public’s understanding of the function and operation of the judicial process and the criminal justice system and may operate as a curb on prosecutorial or judicial misconduct.
The court of appeals also ordered the government to pay Mr. Kortlander’s costs in the appeal.