DA: We have addressed sealed documents loophole

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Pedro Oliveira Jr.
Friday, February 5, 2010
— Walworth County’s top prosecutor said Thursday he has addressed a loophole that allowed search warrant records to remain sealed indefinitely.

District Attorney Phil Koss said he has changed the language his prosecutors will use when requesting search warrants be sealed. The new form sets a six-month expiration date for the seal.

The change comes after a Gazette investigation showed search warrants in Walworth County could be shielded forever from public scrutiny, allowing police to search homes virtually undetected.

“There was no attempt to have a secret form,” Koss said. “(The Gazette) found a loophole, and we quickly addressed it.”

In the old procedure, motions to seal search warrants in Walworth County asked that all documents and their existence be kept under wraps. The seal acted as a seal on itself, as if the search never happened.

The two conditions to unseal search warrants were if a criminal complaint was filed or if a prosecutor filed a motion requesting the court to open the file. If no evidence of criminal activity was found and a criminal complaint was never filed, the documents could remain sealed forever.

Koss said his prosecutors have been advised to use a new template for requesting seals on search warrants, which reads, “These documents should not be open for public inspection until criminal complaints are filed, six months have passed or until further order of the court.”

Wisconsin law does not require prosecutors to file motions to seal documents including a sunset provision. The law grants judges the power to seal documents, but there is no legislation that outlines an appropriate length of time for a seal. Though judges have final say on whether the documents should be sealed, they base their decision on the request made by prosecutors.

The Gazette began investigating the issue when details of a search warrant executed last year at a Delavan home were kept secret for one month. Area police and Walworth County’s SWAT team—some bearing heavy weaponry and equipment—executed a no-knock search at 405 Pine St.

Law enforcement officials, prosecutors and court clerks refused to comment on the operation or the whereabouts of the search warrant files. One high-ranking sheriff’s official told the Gazette that the documents had been sealed and the case remained under investigation.

Another court official said the existence of the search warrants had been sealed along with the documents themselves. Those who knew about the search could not acknowledge it had happened or disclose any details.

Later-unsealed court documents show police were seeking a stolen firearm allegedly kept by Raul R. Valadez, one of the residents of 405 Pine St. Confidential informants told sheriff’s office detectives that Valadez had taken the weapon from another man, Blake A. Kruizenga, who was allegedly displaying the Desert Eagle handgun at a birthday party in Delavan Township.

Officials found drugs and paraphernalia at Valadez’s house, but no weapon. Kruizenga’s home also was searched, and the gun wasn’t there, either.

On Nov. 11, Kruizenga told police he had thrown the gun into Lake Como. The sheriff’s office dive team searched the area but didn’t find the weapon.

The Gazette filed an open records request with the clerk of courts requesting copies of orders sealing search warrants dated Sept. 1 and later.

The request was denied. In a written response, Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Cotter wrote that all parts of the search warrant were sealed, including the seal itself.

Bob Dreps, an attorney at Madison-based Godfrey and Kahn law firm, said Wisconsin law is unclear, and there is no standard practice when it comes to sealing search warrants. It’s not spelled out in state statutes, so each county does it differently, he said.

Last updated: 1:00 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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