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Access to search warrants varies

Three of 5 area counties released requested warrants

STERLING – More than anything, access to search warrants in the Sauk Valley depends on where you are.

Freedom of Information Act requests to Bureau, Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties show that the availability of search warrants and the procedures for filing and keeping them vary by county.

Of the five counties where Sauk Valley Media asked for warrants, three sent copies of the most recent search warrant executed. Two denied the requests, citing different exemptions under the law.

In Lee County, the FOIA request for the most recent search warrant executed by the Sheriff's Department was fulfilled within 24 hours. The office has one of several copies of each search warrant, Sheriff John Varga said.

In Whiteside County, the Sheriff's Department doesn't keep a copy of executed search warrants and instead files them with the state's attorney's office, which handles prosecutions, Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said.

Wilhelmi said he doesn't "see any danger" in the public having access to the warrants.  

"Basically what the search warrant is going to say is that we’re searching a certain property for certain items," he said.

A request sent to Whiteside County State's Attorney Trish Joyce was denied, citing recent court decisions that exempt state's attorneys in Illinois from FOIA requests. But no law bars state's attorneys from releasing those documents.

Carroll County State's Attorney Scott Brinkmeier, however, fulfilled a request after Sheriff Jeff Doran said he didn't have a copy of search warrants.

In Carroll County, the search warrants are kept in the circuit clerk's office, where they are available to the public.

"Unless it’s been sealed, it’s public record," Brinkmeier said, adding that search warrants are sealed when suspects don't know they are being investigated.

Doran, like Wilhelmi, said there isn't much danger in giving the public access to search warrants, but did say there could be circumstances when names of informants are listed.

When confidential informants are used, often in drug investigations, they're given aliases in search warrants, Doran said.

Bureau County Sheriff John Thompson said search warrants are the property of the court and are returned to the circuit clerk, where they can be viewed by the public, and the state's attorney's office after being executed, at which point he sees no harm in them being available to the public.

"Those that have been executed, they’re just a record," Thompson said.

The Ogle County Sheriff's Department denied two FOIA requests for search warrants. The first was for a specific drug-related case dating back to Aug. 20. The second was for the most recent non-drug related search warrant.

Both requests were denied, citing an exemption that releasing them would interfere with law enforcement investigations.

Once a case has been closed, search warrants are kept in the court file in the circuit clerk's office, said a woman who answered the phone there Thursday.

The search warrant denied by the Ogle County Sheriff's Department for the specific drug-related case resulted in five charges of possession drug paraphernalia. The fulfilled Carroll County request revealed a search warrant that led to a charge of unlawful possession of weapons by a felon.

While Lee County quickly fulfilled SVM's request, the Sheriff's Department doesn't always immediately release search warrants, Varga said, adding that his department takes a case-by-case approach.

Requests for search warrants make up about 5 percent of the FOIA requests his office receives, he said.

"The question is, What are you looking for and what do you want?" Varga said. "My policy at the Sheriff's Department is if we can give it to you, we will give it to you."

Access by county

Sauk Valley Media issued Freedom of Information Act requests for the most recently executed search warrants from area counties. Did they release the warrants?

Bureau County

FOIA request fulfilled. Search warrants in court files, attainable through circuit clerk.

Carroll County

FOIA request fulfilled. Search warrants filed and available through circuit clerk.

Lee County

FOIA request fulfilled. Search warrants available through sheriff's office.

Ogle County

FOIA request denied. Search warrants kept by sheriff's office and state's attorney's office until after case, then filed with circuit clerk.

Whiteside County

FOIA request denied. Search warrants filed with state's attorney's office, which is exempt from FOIA requests.

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