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Access to search warrants not always clear

SVM requests for documents denied by Ogle County

Is a search warrant a public record in Illinois? Usually, but not always.

Sometimes the answer is unclear, according to an official from the office of state attorney general and an Illinois Press Association attorney.

IPA attorney Don Craven said Ogle County officials have made an inadequate case for their denials of Sauk Valley Media’s requests to see the search warrant that resulted in drug paraphernalia possession charges against a Mount Morris man in August.

While search warrants generally are documents available to the public, a judge can seal them for a legitimate reason, Craven said.

“If there are other people involved in some criminal activity that don’t yet know they’re the subject of investigation – we don’t want the bad guys to know,” Craven said.

Sarah Pratt, the public access counselor with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, said the fact that an investigation is ongoing is not enough of a reason to keep a search warrant from the public. Specific reasons must be given, she said, that prove that releasing the documents would hinder an investigation or prosecution.

“It depends on the circumstances,” she said after being given the reasons Sauk Valley Media received from the sheriff’s office. “But that does sound kind of general. It’s often case by case.”

Sauk Valley Media made two requests under the Freedom of Information Act to see the search warrant and police affidavits that led to the Aug. 20 search of Justin Coltrain’s home in Mount Morris.

The search led to the arrest of Coltrain, 33, for possession of drug paraphernalia.

On Aug. 20, the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department issued a news release about Coltrain’s arrest. That arrest came 9 days after Coltrain had been charged with battery for his part in an Aug. 10 fight at a party in Oregon that resulted in the death of 18-year-old Jonathan Williams, although Coltrain was not arrested for hitting Williams.

Coltrain talked to SVM for a story published Aug. 13 in which he described what went on at the party. That story also mentions that Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn’s son, Andrew, was arrested a block from the party and charged with illegal consumption.

Ogle County State’s Attorney Mike Rock denied SVM’s first request to see the search warrant and police affidavits, citing a recent appellate court ruling that state’s attorneys are not required to follow the Freedom of Information Act. In his denial letter, Rock indicated that were he not exempt, he would deny the request because it would interfere with legal proceedings.

Sheriff Harn denied a second request by SVM, similarly writing the request would “interfere with pending or actually and reasonably contemplated law enforcement proceedings conducted by any law enforcement or correctional agency.”

SVM then asked Harn to give specific reasons that releasing the documents would interfere with legal proceedings. In its request, SVM asserted that Harn had not presented “clear and convincing” evidence as to why the information wasn’t being released, which is required by state law.

The only reasons given by Harn in his second response was that releasing the documents would reveal the prosecution’s case and doing so “could taint potential jurors.”

The letter also said, “And while there are statutes that cover exemptions for those types of information, all of the information should be exempt when a prosecution is pending due to the risk involved.”

Releasing the search warrant and police affidavits to SVM, Harn wrote, would mean “the state’s entire case could become known to the public, which is harmful to the prosecution.”

Harn has not responded to SVM’s requests for further comment on the matter.

On Sept. 3, five charges of possession of drug paraphernalia were filed against Coltrain. He said police “are abusing their power.”

He thinks he’s being singled out because of his past. Coltrain has several previous arrests and convictions, including burglary and a 2003 charge for possession with the intent to deliver marijuana

Coltrain is due in court Oct. 11 for the charges of battery and drug paraphernalia. 

IPA lawyer Craven, meanwhile, questions why the sheriff would need to keep secret documents that led to an arrest he publicized with a news release.

“That uncertainty [about search warrants] is the problem – that you don’t know if you can look at a public records or not,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”

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