A Connecticut judge recently unsealed search warrant materials in the case of an ex-police officer charged with dozens of offenses related to his alleged unlawful use of the department’s computer database after a local newspaper reporter challenged the secrecy of the court records.
Kevin Litten, who covers the Torrington Police Department for the Republican-American, asked at a court hearing last month that arrest warrants for Hector Medina be unsealed. The public hearing was scheduled after Litten questioned the court clerk about why the materials had been sealed without the proper procedure. The reporter said he learned of the state law requirement that a judge hold a public hearing before sealing documents in criminal cases through some basic legal research.
He consulted the paper’s courts reporter, who directed him to the so-called Connecticut Practice Book, which contains the rules governing procedures in state court — a manual with which Litten encouraged all journalists, regardless of their state, to become familiar.
It is important to understand court rules, “especially as they relate to the sealing of documents and how you can challenge” the secrecy, Litten said in an interview. “Particularly in those areas without a large paper, the courts may not be following their own procedure, simply because no one has ever challenged them.”
Connecticut Superior Court Judge Richard M. Marano earlier this month denied the state’s request to extend the sealing of the arrest warrants and underlying affidavits, which Marano originally shielded from public view shortly after Medina’s arrest last month.
Arrest warrants and related materials generally are considered court records subject to either a common-law or constitutional presumption of openness, at least once the arrest is made and the warrant return filed with the court, according to the Reporters Committee’s Secret Justice report, Warrants and Wiretaps.
Under Connecticut rules, a judge may seal the documents “upon written request of the prosecuting authority and for good cause shown” for up to two weeks. The court may renew the seal, but renewal is permitted only if a higher standard is met — the court must find that renewal “is necessary to preserve an interest which is determined to override the public’s interest in viewing such materials.” Judges must “first consider reasonable alternatives to any such order and any such order shall be no broader than necessary to protect such overriding interest,” the Reporters Committee’s guide states.
In the case of the arrest warrant charging Medina with 93 counts of computer crimes, false entry and forgery, the government “failed to make any specific assertions of harm that could occur [to the victims] if this information is disclosed,” Marano ruled. As for a warrant alleging that Medina made a false statement when he claimed in an affidavit that he made two traffic stops police said never occurred, the information was not “graphic or inflammatory” or “unfairly prejudicial” such that the defendant’s right to a fair trial overrode the right of public access, the judge concluded.
Through the information contained in the unsealed warrants and underlying affidavits, Litten was able to report that Medina’s arrest stemmed from police allegations that the officer “was cruising store parking lots, past residential driveways and state parks, collecting license plate information and entering the information as a traffic stop that resulted in a verbal warning.” The warrants revealed police allegations that more than 29 different plates were run when none of those people were pulled over, according to Litten's article.
This information enabled Litten to report the “fuller and more complete story,” namely because Medina had been alleging for several months that his conflict with his employer stemmed not from any misconduct on his part but from retaliatory efforts by higher-ranking police officials.
“Once you have all the documents and information, it’s much easier to come to the right conclusions,” Litten said, adding that because of Medina’s position as a police officer and the allegations he was making against his former employer, public access to the information underlying his arrest was particularly important.
“It appeared this case was getting special [secrecy] treatment because he was a police officer, and if that was so, why was that the case?” the reporter said in explaining his rationale for challenging the sealing of the arrest warrants and related materials. “Could there have been a civil rights [allegation] against the officer? Could he have victimized innocent members of the public? We couldn’t answer those questions until the documents were released.”
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Media coverage and the jury pool