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News media win hearing before judge can seal documents

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   June 27, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   June 27, 2006

News media win hearing before judge can seal documents

  • A judge must hold a public hearing before sealing pre-trial documents in a murder trial, a state appeals court ordered.

June 27, 2006  ·   A trial court cannot seal documents gathered in preparation of a murder trial without a public hearing, a Florida appeals court ruled Friday.

The Tampa Tribune, WFLA-TV and their parent company, Media General Operations Inc., challenged a January decision by Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Ronald N. Ficarrotta, who sealed pre-trial information at the sealed request of defendant David Lee Onstott. Ficarrotta did so without a public hearing on why the information should be sealed.

Jim McGuire of Thomas & Locicero, which represented Media General, said the ruling by Florida’s District Court of Appeal in Lakeland provides good guidance for anyone wishing to seal records in court. “If you want to argue about public records you do that on the record, in the open, ” he said.

“The defense counsel can still ask the court to seal the underlying documents, they just have to make the argument in open court,” McGuire said.

The unanimous three-judge panel said the trial court may direct Onstott to file a motion “that states the basis for sealing the discovery materials without divulging the information he seeks to exempt from pretrial disclosure.”

If the trial court then decides to seal the discovery information, the judge should make explicit findings as to why, Judge Edward LaRose wrote for the panel. McGuire speculated that it is possible that the sealed information contains a confession or other incriminating evidence based on the law Onstott has referenced for keeping the information secret.

While the information ultimately may not be made public in Onstott’s case, the decision is still important, McGuire said.

“We view it as having an important impact going forward because a lot of times trial courts are a little bit uncertain about how to go forward” when there is a request to seal information, McGuire said.

Onstott is accused of killing 13-year-old Sarah Michelle Lunde in April 2005.

(Media General Operations, Inc. d/b/a The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV News Channel 8; Media counsel: Gregg D. Thomas and Jim McGuire, Thomas & Locicero, Tampa, Fla.)HB

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