What It Means to Unseal a Search Warrant: Explained

Have you ever wondered what happens after a search warrant is issued? What does it mean to unseal a search warrant? In this article, we will dive into the intricacies of unsealing search warrants and shed light on the process. So, let’s unravel this legal mystery together!

Understanding the Background

Recently, a civil-liberties organization filed a petition to unseal search warrants and supporting affidavits. These warrants authorized the county sheriff’s office to utilize cell-site simulators for obtaining location data on cell phones. However, the Superior Court decided to keep these materials sealed, prompting the organization to appeal the decision.

The Court’s Verdict

The Court of Appeal carefully examined the case and made several key determinations:

  1. The organization had the legal standing to make the petition.
  2. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in keeping the search-warrant affidavits sealed. This decision was based on the confidential-informant privilege and the county’s qualified right to withhold information in the interest of justice.
  3. Due to the confidential-informant privilege, the organization’s right to unseal the search-warrant affidavits was undermined.
  4. According to court rules, there was no obligation to unseal information in the search-warrant affidavits.
  5. Considering the history-and-utility test for public access to judicial records, the organization was not entitled to access the sealed search-warrant affidavits.
  6. Even if the organization had a qualified First Amendment right to access the sealed search-warrant affidavits, their request to unseal them was properly denied.
  7. The provision in the California Constitution that grants access to judicial hearings and records did not provide the organization with the right to unseal the search-warrant affidavits.
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EFF and the Use of Cell-Site Simulators

EFF, a civil liberties organization dedicated to safeguarding fundamental liberties in the digital world, believes that cell-site simulators infringe on innocent people’s privacy. These simulators mimic cell towers and intercept cell phones’ signals, providing access to their data. By establishing the cell-site simulator’s proximity, law enforcement can track and monitor targeted phones.

EFF claims that law enforcement authorities in San Bernardino County use cell-site simulators frequently. However, they also seek to keep the details of these warrants hidden. EFF sought to unseal eight search warrant packets issued by the Superior Court between March 2017 and March 2018, granting permission to use cell-site simulators.

EFF’s intent was to gain insight into various aspects, including the nature of the offenses, the expertise of the affiants, the reason behind the searches, the information sought, the compliance procedures for service providers, and the reasons for sealing and nondisclosure.

The Argument for Indefinite Sealing

The County argued for the indefinite sealing of “Hobbs” affidavits. These affidavits contain sensitive information about confidential informants and fall under the category of “official information,” which is not publicly disclosed. The County asserted that sealing these documents was necessary to protect the identities of informants and maintain confidentiality.

Section 1534(a) and Evidence Code 1041

Section 1534(a) outlines that a warrant and its related documents can remain sealed for ten days after issuance. After this period, they become accessible to the public as part of the judicial record. EFF argued that since these warrants were executed long before their motion to unseal, the search warrant packets should be accessible under Section 1534(a). However, the County pointed out that Evidence Code section 1041, which protects the identity of confidential informants, creates an exception to Section 1534(a).

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The Hobbs Procedure

To determine whether a Hobbs affidavit should be unsealed, trial courts follow a specific procedure. It begins with an assessment of whether the affidavit or any major portion of it should remain sealed to protect the informant’s identity. If it is determined that only certain parts need to be redacted, the court can order limited disclosure.

In this case, the trial court concluded that EFF’s reasons for unsealing the Hobbs affidavits did not outweigh the County’s interest in preserving the confidentiality of official information and the identities of informants. The court’s decision was found to be reasonable and well-founded.

Dispelling Legal Advice Myths

Before we conclude, it is important to note that the information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only. This article does not intend to constitute legal advice. If you need legal assistance, consult a qualified professional.

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