A federal court yesterday ordered the release of search records related to the 2001 “Amerithrax” investigations, recognizing for the first time in the District of Columbia Circuit a First Amendment right of access to warrant materials after an investigation has concluded.
Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a request from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to release the documents – warrants and supporting materials related to searches of property owned or used by Dr. Stephen J. Hatfill his former girlfriend. Hatfill was once named as a “person of interest” in the case, but has since been cleared by investigators.
Lamberth noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit “has not entertained the question presented in this case — whether or not there is a First Amendment qualified right of access to warrant materials after an investigation has concluded.” For this reason, Lamberth relied on the so-called “experience and logic” test, which looks to whether the records “have historically been open to the press and general public,” and whether “public access plays a significant positive role in the functioning of the particular process in question.”
Finding that both of these factors weighed in favor of openness to search warrant records, the court concluded that the First Amendment provided a qualified right of access, in addition to a an established (but less rigorous) access right based on the common law.
Lamberth ordered the documents released with redactions to protect the identity of informants. “Although the government has a compelling interest in keeping the identity of informants secret, it has failed to show that it is necessary to seal all of the warrant materials to accomplish that objective," he noted.