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Electronic Frontier Foundation v. Superior Court of San Bernardino County

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  1. Court Access

Court: California Supreme Court

Date Filed: Nov. 23, 2022

Background: The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a petition to unseal materials contained in several search warrants issued by the San Bernardino County Superior Court that allowed the county sheriff to use cell-site simulators to track the location of cell phones. The nonprofit digital rights organization sought the records in order to better understand how law enforcement in San Bernardino County uses cell-site simulators, also known as “stingrays.”

While the sheriff and the local district attorney agreed to turn over some of the requested records, they challenged EFF’s effort to unseal most of the records, including search warrant applications and affidavits, claiming that the materials could contain sensitive information about law enforcement investigations.

In 2021, a trial court denied EFF’s petition, even though all of the investigations tied to the fully executed search warrants had been completed by the time the court ruled. EFF appealed, but the California Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the public did not have a First Amendment right to access the search warrant materials.

EFF then filed a petition asking the California Supreme Court to hear the case.

Our Position: The California Supreme Court should grant EFF’s petition.

  • Access to search warrant materials plays a vital role in investigative reporting on matters of public concern.
  • The appeals court erred in concluding that the press and public have no First Amendment right of access to warrant materials.
  • The appeals court erred in concluding that any First Amendment right of access to search warrant materials would be overcome in its entirety in this case.

Quote: “If allowed to stand, the Court of Appeal’s analysis will cut off an important avenue for the free flow of information to the public, undermining public discourse on subjects as weighty as police accountability and the effect of the use of new technologies on constitutional rights.”

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