Walworth County works to ensure openness
After denying an October open records request from the Gazette, Walworth County officials in January addressed a loophole that allowed search warrant records to remain sealed indefinitely.
District Attorney Phil Koss said he 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.
A Gazette investigation showed search warrants in Walworth County could be shielded forever from public scrutiny.
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.
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.
On Oct. 6, 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.
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, which was never recovered.