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Judge finds right of access to served warrants

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Judge finds right of access to served warrants

  • A circuit court judge ruled that the public’s constitutional right of access to the courts trumps any open records law exemptions, and unsealed the search warrant and other materials in a criminal case against the producer of a controversial video series.

March 8, 2004 — A circuit court judge in Florida unsealed search warrants and related materials in the pending criminal trial of Joseph Francis Jr., founder and owner of the “Girls Gone Wild” video series.

Judge Dedee Costello of Circuit Court in Panama City overturned an April 9, 2003, order entered by Judge Thomas Welch of the Bay County Court, who held that the documents should remain sealed because they were part on an open investigation.

According to court records, attorneys for the State of Florida argued that a 1998 precedent set in Florida Publishing Company v. State of Florida required all search warrants to be sealed because they are deemed to be exempt from public records requests. Costello disagree with that rationale, saying the public has a constitutional right of access to court records.

“The public’s right to be involved and knowledgeable about its court system cannot be impugned by a blanket rule that makes no distinction between executed and unexecuted search warrant materials,” Costello said in her March 2 ruling.

John A. Bussian, attorney for The (Panama City) News Herald, which sued for the records, said the court’s decision was an important victory for the media, given the recent rash of secrecy surrounding celebrity cases throughout the country.

“We knew we had to get this constitutional right of access for the public because the news industry seems to be sliding down a dangerous slope with all the other high-profile cases,” Bussian said. “It was important Judge Costello recognized the people have a constitutional right of access.”

Media organizations have struggled to gain access to documents in other high-profile court cases, including the Kobe Bryant, Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson trials. Documents in both Bryant and Peterson’s trials are still sealed, while the search warrants in Jackson’s trial were recently released.

Francis was arrested in Florida in April 2003 and charged with promoting the sexual performance of children. The “Girls Gone Wild” video series shows girls — often intoxicated — flashing the camera and performing sexual acts with one another. Two girls Francis alleged used in a filming in Florida were under the age of 18.

No trial date has been set.

(Florida Freedom Newspapers, Inc. v. Florida; Media Counsel: John Bussian, The Bussian Law Firm, Raleigh, N.C.) LH


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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