In the Atlanta case where the 92-year-old was killed after shooting at police serving a warrant, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says of the warrant in the case:
The basis for the search warrant was not known because State Court Administrator Stefani Searcy refused to release a copy of the warrant Wednesday. State law considers all such documents public record but Searcy cited “office policy” as her reason for withholding the warrant.
Radley Balko quotes the above passage and says:
I find this rather disconcerting. A woman is dead. Three cops were shot. There are serious questions about how and why the warrant was issued. And despite the fact that the warrant is already public information, we still don’t get to see it? Exactly whom do the police, the DA, and the courts serve?
(Emphasis in original.)
I’m not as certain as Balko and the Atlanta newspaper that search warrants are public record in Georgia. I’m certainly no expert on the issue, and I’m open to correction if I’m wrong. But I believe I have located the relevant Georgia statute, and it may well exempt such documents from disclosure:
(a) Public disclosure shall not be required for records that are:
. . . .
(3) Except as otherwise provided by law, records compiled for law enforcement or prosecution purposes to the extent that production of such records would disclose the identity of a confidential source, disclose confidential investigative or prosecution material which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or persons, or disclose the existence of a confidential surveillance or investigation;
(4) Records of law enforcement, prosecution, or regulatory agencies in any pending investigation or prosecution of criminal or unlawful activity, other than initial police arrest reports and initial incident reports; provided, however, that an investigation or prosecution shall no longer be deemed to be pending when all direct litigation involving said investigation and prosecution has become final or otherwise terminated;
Search warrants are obviously not “initial police arrest reports” or “initial incident reports.” They are, however, records of law enforcement agencies in pending investigations. They appear to be exempt on that basis alone.
Furthermore, search warrants often contain information from confidential informants — information that, if publicly released, could result in the informant’s being hurt or killed.
For these reasons, here in California, not every search warrant is public record. Not only that, portions of the affidavit, and occasionally the entire affidavit, are sometimes not only withheld from the public — they’re even withheld from the defense. And for good reason.
Say a confidential informant gives an officer information about drug sales from a house. Based on that information, an undercover officer buys illegal narcotics from someone in the house. Based on that buy, officers obtain a search warrant and find piles of drugs in the house.
If the prosecution is not going to rely on the testimony of the confidential informant to make its case, and the informant can’t offer any information that might aid the defense, then there is no point in releasing the informant’s name. All that would do is endanger the informant’s life, for no discernible reason. So California law requires that the defense make a strict showing to obtain such information, and disclosure rarely happens.
Is this public information? Not here.
I suspect it’s the same in Georgia. And the statute quoted above appears to indicate that I’m right.
Does the search warrant affidavit in the Atlanta case contain any information from a confidential informant? I don’t know, and I’m wagering that Balko and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution don’t either. But I’d be willing to bet that it does. If a cop made an undercover buy at the house, as reports suggest, they had to have a reason for doing that. It could be that they simply observed suspected narcotics sales through surveillance. But in my experience, search warrants based on mere surveillance are rare. It’s much more common that information will come from an informant, who has told police that the location is a good house to buy dope from.
So I’m not sure the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Radley Balko are correct to claim that the search warrant in this case is public record. If any reader has expertise in this area, please share it.