Bill seeks to codify ruling that search warrants are public records

January 25, 2012

Staff Report

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. –– Friday, Jan. 20, state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, filed legislation, House Bill 4032, to codify Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s opinion that search warrants are considered public records once they are returned to the court.

The ability of the public to view the judicial process is among our most basic rights and provides an important check and balance,” said Zalewski, a former prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. “We shouldn’t have a secret judicial system in Illinois. If circumstances dictate, a judge can use his discretion to seal a record, but there is no reason why search warrants should be routinely kept off-limits from the public.”

Zalewski’s legislation is in response to recent rulings by some Illinois courts that the public has no right of access to search warrant documents. The bill does not seek to alter a judge’s ability to seal search warrant returns or any other documents in a court file.

In her 2007 opinion, Madigan said search warrants are “open to public inspection unless the court enters an order specifically providing otherwise.” The opinion adds that “there is no statutory or other authority for a circuit clerk to unilaterally seal or impound files containing complaints for search warrants, associated affidavits, and the search warrants themselves.”

Josh Sharp, director of Government Relations for the Illinois Press Association (IPA), said: “Search warrants have long been public documents in Illinois as supported by current state statute and the Attorney General. I applaud Rep. Zalewski’s effort to secure transparency and openness in the judiciary and to clarify that unless sealed by a judge, search warrants remain open to public inspection.

The Attorney General’s opinion speaks for itself,” Sharp added. “It is unfortunate legislation even has to be introduced to respond to a gross misinterpretation of the law. The Cook County court system is the largest in the world, and it’s a legal system where search warrants and their accompanying documents are routinely made available to the public. The Attorney General would not have issued the opinion that she did if transparency was going to interfere with justice in a legal system as vast as Cook County’s.”

The IPA in Springfield, Ill., represents the interests of its 480 daily and weekly newspaper members. The Rock River Times is a member of the association.

From the Jan. 25-31, 2012, issue

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