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Proposed Utah courts rule change addresses search warrants as public documents

Published January 29, 2014 9:10 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A proposed Utah state courts rule change that journalists support would make sealed search warrants served in criminal cases public after six months unless someone seeks and a judge approves an order to keep them sealed.

Currently, once a judge seals a search warrant, it remains sealed indefinitely unless the sealing is successfully challenged in court.

The courts system is seeking comments on the proposed changes to Rule 40. Members of the public have up to 30 days after the change's Jan. 24 posting to weigh in by commenting here.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter/editor Nate Carlisle joined KSL Radio news director Sheryl Worsley in seeking the rule change. Representing the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the pair two years ago approached a state courts subcommittee overseeing criminal procedure to recommend the change.

It's important to journalists, acting on the public's behalf, because search warrants often include information that sheds light on key criminal cases.

The Tribune, for example, fought in court for two years to get search warrants served in the Susan Powell investigation unsealed.

Those documents revealed West Valley City officers nearly immediately classified Powell's disappearance as a possible kidnapping and murder — and identified husband Josh Powell as a suspect — even as they continued to represent it to the public as a missing person case.

Carlisle, who frequently reports on criminal investigations, said he and other Tribune crime reporters saw inconsistencies in search warrants' treatment as public documents.

"The proposed change increases transparency in Utah while maintaining protections for criminal investigations," he 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."

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.

This provides protections for investigators in cases that remain unsolved for extended periods such as that involving Rosie Tapia, the 6-year-old Salt Lake City girl whose body was found in a Jordan River canal in 1995 after her kidnapping.

Carlisle said Utah SPJ will continue working with the subcommittee on other transparency initiatives, including making search warrants available online and implementing some type of notification to the public when warrants are sealed.