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Ill. court finds no right of access to search warrants

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  1. Court Access
An Illinois appellate court held on Dec. 8 that there is no right of access for the public to obtain…

An Illinois appellate court held on Dec. 8 that there is no right of access for the public to obtain search warrants that have been filed with the courts, even after the warrants have been executed. The decision came down Dec. 8 and seemingly contradicts what is commonly practiced in the state.

At issue are documents for a search warrant that was issued in the investigation of several murders in late 2009. The trial court initially denied the public access to two documents: the supporting affidavit for the warrant — a document where police outline the evidence that establishes the probable cause needed to conduct a search — and the inventory of what was taken in the search. Both documents were filed with the court upon completion of the search.

After a trial court found that while there was a presumption of access to these documents, the particular circumstances of the case — a homicide investigation — warranted closure. The State Journal-Register, the Bloomington Pantagraph and the Decatur Herald and Review appealed that decision to the state's Fourth District Appellate Court.

The appellate court went further than the lower court in denying access, holding that there was no presumption of access to the documents in the first place. The court ruled that "the warrant-application process has historically not been open to the public, and public access 'would hinder, rather than facilitate, the warrant process and the government's ability to conduct criminal investigations.'" (The emphasis is in the opinion.)

Don Craven, the attorney for the newspapers, disagrees with the appellate court. He said there is a long history of allowing access to these documents in many counties. What was an appeal in one county on individual circumstances now becomes a blanket exemption that binds the entire state, he said.

"The trial court had no problem recognizing that a right of access existed," he said. "We are very disappointed."

The newspapers have not decided whether to appeal, but that decision will come later this week, Craven said. For his part, Craven believes this case needs to be appealed because the new state of the law is bad for those seeking access.