Changing search warrant policy
Q: A criminal superior court has a new search warrant policy where the affiants or other law enforcement officer who is filing the search warrant redacts information from the warrant in order to reduce the work of the exhausted and overworked court clerks. Items redacted include vehicles searched, addresses searched, and persons being searched. The clerk’s office has the redacted files for viewing.
A: Although your email does not pose a specific question, some general information about the public’s right of access to search warrant documents may be helpful to you. The California courts have recognized that the public has a constitutional right to review court documents. This means that court documents may not be sealed in whole or in part (a redaction is the equivalent of a partial sealing) without first satisfying the strict procedure for sealing court records mandated by the California Supreme Court in its 1999 decision in NBC Subsidiary and later codified in California Rules of Court 2.550-2.551. Under these rules, court records may not be sealed as a matter of course; the court must specifically order that the records be sealed, and only after expressly finding that (1) that there is an “overriding interest” to support sealing, (2) there is a substantial probability the overriding interest will be prejudiced absent sealing, (3) the proposed sealing is narrowly tailored, and (4) there is no less restrictive means of achieving the overriding interest.
California law requires that once a search warrant has been executed, “all documents and records” relating to the warrant must be open to the public as a judicial record. Penal Code section 1534(a). Since the Legislature has determined that search warrant documents are public records after the warrant has been executed, the First Amendment and the Rules of Court mandate that you have a right to review unredacted versions of the documents relating to an executed search warrant unless the requirements for sealing articulated by NBC Subsidiary and the California Rules of Court have first been satisfied.