Court: U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
Date Filed: Oct. 18, 2023
Background: In a closed investigation of child sexual exploitation offenses that did not result in charges being filed, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois asked third parties, including members of the news media, to weigh in on whether search warrant materials related to the case should be unsealed. Specifically, the court sought friend-of-the-court briefs addressing “whether search warrant materials should be sealed in their entirety pending further order of court at the government’s request upon the conclusion of an investigation and a statement by the government, in the motion, that the investigation did not result in formal charges, or whether the government should be required to file a redacted version of the search warrant materials while keeping the unredacted versions under seal pending further order of Court.”
In September 2023, the court granted a request by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to file a brief addressing the court’s question.
Our Position: The court should hold that the bare fact that an investigation did not result in formal charges does not, without more, justify sealing warrant materials in their entirety; that the presumption of public access to warrant materials applies with full force in closed investigations that conclude without the filing of criminal charges; that any redactions — to say nothing of wholesale sealing — must be narrowly tailored and justified by a showing of compelling interests tied to the facts of a particular case; and that any redactions or sealing should be limited in duration, which the court can assure through the use of a “sunshine date.”
- The common law establishes a presumption of public access to search warrant materials, including in investigations closed without charges.
- The First Amendment also establishes a presumption of public access to warrant materials, including in investigations closed without charges.
- To the extent the presumption of access is temporarily overcome by facts specific to a particular case, the court should adopt a “sunshine date” to ensure that secrecy does not persist longer than necessary.
Related: Reporters Committee attorneys have represented news organizations in a number of cases seeking access to warrant materials, including in closed investigations that did not result in criminal charges. For example, Reporters Committee attorneys helped the Los Angeles Times unseal court records related to the Justice Department’s closed insider-trading investigation of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). The records, which shed light on the lawmaker’s stock trades around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and how officials navigated an investigation into a sitting member of Congress, were unsealed after a lengthy legal battle to help the public understand the grounds for which the government sought — and obtained — a search warrant for Burr’s phone in May 2020.