April 20, 2010

Your Right to Know: Wisconsin needs rules for sealed warrants

Last fall, area police and a Walworth County’s SWAT team executed a no-knock search at a residence in Delavan. It was a full-scale exercise of police power involving heavy weaponry and equipment.

But details of the search were kept secret for a full month. Law enforcement officials, prosecutors and court clerks refused to comment on the operation or the whereabouts of the search warrant files.

One high-ranking sheriff’s official told the Janesville Gazette that the documents had been sealed and the case remained under investigation.

Another court official said the existence of the search warrants had been sealed along with the documents themselves. Those who knew about the search could not acknowledge it had happened or disclose any details.

Wisconsin legislation and case law give judges the power to seal documents. But each county is left to structure the language on its seals and decide how long documents remain sealed.

In Dane and Rock counties, court officials put out summaries of executed search warrants, including information about the ones sealed and how long the seal will remain in effect.

In Walworth County, motions to seal search warrants ask that all documents and their existence be kept under wraps. The seal acts as a seal on itself, as if the search never happened.

Authorities in Walworth County leave these records sealed until a criminal complaint is filed, or a prosecutor files a motion requesting the court to open the file. If no evidence of criminal activity is found and a criminal complaint never filed, the documents could remain sealed forever.

District Attorney Phil Koss told the Gazette that has happened in the past, in cases where there is “no referral from law enforcement or for whatever reason the investigation doesn’t pan out.” With nothing to prompt further attention to the case, “the clerk is not going to unseal [the records], and the judge is not going to think about them until we ask him to.”

On Oct. 6, the Gazette filed an open records request with the Walworth County Clerk of Courts requesting copies of orders sealing search warrants for a given time period. The request was an effort to learn how often Walworth County judges ordered documents sealed and for how long.

The request was denied. In a written response, Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Cotter wrote that all parts of the search warrant were sealed, including the seal itself.

According to Walworth County Judge Michael Gibbs, the seals are necessary to protect ongoing investigations. Gibbs said most of the documents he seals are financial records pertaining to divorce, mental health records and juvenile matters, which are exempt from the state public records law.

But citizens and media have a right to scrutinize police operations in Wisconsin homes. The system should be clear about how long documents can remain sealed. And there should be ways to keep track of sealed documents, especially those that would otherwise be public records.

In the Walworth County case, later-unsealed documents show police were seeking a stolen firearm allegedly kept by Raul R. Valadez, one of the residents. Confidential informants told the sheriff’s office that Valadez had taken a handgun from another man, Blake A. Kruizenga, at a birthday party in Delavan township.

Authorities executed a second search warrant, this time at Kruizenga’s house. The documents were also kept secret for a month.

The weapon was never found.