The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal has sued Mississippi’s Union County, asking a judge to order that search warrants in its county-level justice court be made open for public inspection.
The lawsuit comes after an investigation last year by the Daily Journal and ProPublica found that almost two-thirds of Mississippi’s justice courts obstruct access to search warrants and to the affidavits used by police to obtain them.
That thwarts public scrutiny of searches, including no-knock raids in which police sometimes enter people’s homes at night with guns drawn. Last year, two Mississippi counties settled lawsuits involving such raids in which police shot people, one fatally.
Law enforcement usually must get permission from a judge before searching someone’s property, and normally they must knock and announce themselves before entering. But they can ask a judge for a no-knock warrant if they provide specific reasons.
They must bring search warrants back to court after a search, along with a list of what they seized.
The news organizations found that some Mississippi courts break statewide rules that require clerks to keep those warrants on file. Other courts — such as the Union County Justice Court — have the documents but claim the public can’t look at them.
“Our goal is to ensure that judicial records are kept open and that the government at all levels does its work where the public can see it,” Daily Journal Executive Editor Sam Hall said. “It seems clear to us — and to many other courts across the country — that the records we’ve requested should be public.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized a centuries-old norm that court proceedings and papers should be open to the public. Judges can order that certain documents be sealed, but that must be done on a case-by-case basis.
Federal appeals courts have agreed that search warrants are judicial records that should be open to inspection, though they disagree about when exactly the document becomes subject to access.
It is “highly unusual” for a court to claim “that search warrants and related materials are simply never accessible to the public,” Katie Townsend, deputy executive director and legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the news organizations last year.
But many of Mississippi’s justice courts, which frequently handle search warrants, did just that.
An attorney acting on behalf of Union County told the Daily Journal that records of executed search warrants on file with the clerk of the Union County Justice Court are shielded from public view because of a state law that protects the investigative records of law enforcement agencies.
In its lawsuit, the Daily Journal argues that this claim runs afoul of Mississippi’s Public Records Act and the common-law right to access court records. Mississippi’s public records law does contain an exemption for certain investigative records, but the exemption applies only to law enforcement agencies, not courts.
The county later offered to make some search warrants available, but only if a criminal investigation had concluded and a judge gave permission. The Daily Journal’s lawsuit argues that these conditions aren’t supported by law.
A representative of Union County did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Experts say it’s not easy to get access to search warrants in many courthouses across the country. Even so, they said the problems with record-keeping and public access in Mississippi’s justice courts were extreme.
After a search warrant has been executed, it “should be a part of the files and available for public inspection,” William Waller Jr., a retired chief justice of Mississippi’s Supreme Court, told the news organizations last year. He helped draft the state’s rules of criminal procedure.
In response to the Daily Journal and ProPublica’s investigation, Mississippi’s judicial training body has advised court clerks and judges at training sessions that executed search warrants must be kept on file by the clerk and that the documents should be considered public if a judge hasn’t sealed them.
Last month, an insurance program run by many Mississippi counties held a risk management conference for law enforcement agencies, featuring sessions on search warrants and no-knock raids. Lawyers warned sheriffs that deputies should carefully document their reasons for conducting no-knock searches.
Rural Monroe County, in Mississippi’s northeast corner, settled a lawsuit for $690,000 last year over a 2015 fatal shooting by sheriff’s deputies during a 1 a.m. raid to look for drugs. Ricky Keeton came to the door with an air pistol as deputies pried open his door. His girlfriend said he thought someone was breaking in.
Also last year, Coahoma County, in the Mississippi Delta, settled a lawsuit that involved a 2020 raid in which sheriff’s deputies shot an unarmed man multiple times. He wasn’t even the target of the search and only happened to be at the house at the time of the raid. The amount of the settlement has not been disclosed.