HICKORY— Article I of North Carolina’s Constitution states: “All courts should be open.”
But the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation search warrants executed on the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office remain sealed. A superior court judge, Daniel Kuehnert, sealed the documents and placed a gag order on all parties connected.
The search warrants name sheriff candidate Jason Reid as subject of the SBI investigation.
Reid is under investigation for stalking. He has not been charged with a crime.
These warrants were sealed in a closed session, where the public could not argue its side.
The general public has a right to view and obtain a copy of public records, such as search warrants, and to seal a public record there are several steps that must be taken.
Since the warrants were sealed and a gag order was implemented without following established procedure, The Hickory Daily Record, WBTV, WSOC-TV, The Charlotte Observer, the Associated Press and the Carolina Public Press filed a motion Tuesday afternoon asking Catawba County Superior Court to unseal the search warrants and lift the gag order.
The motion cites numerous examples of state and federal case law to support the claim that the way these warrants were sealed infringes on First Amendment rights, as well as the public’s Constitutional right to have access to the warrants. The gag order falls under the same criteria.
In addition, Catawba County is unique in the fact that an administrative order exists concerning the sealing of public documents.
Catawba County’s order states:
A. There must be a written motion filed by the Attorney General or District Attorney.
B. The written motion must set out the general grounds for sealing.
C. The motion shall be filed in the Office of the Clerk of Superior Court.
D. The Clerk of Superior Court shall maintain as a public record the identity of law enforcement requesting the search, the identity of the attorney who signed the motion to seal, the identity of the judge who signed the sealing order, the date the order was signed and the date and time the order expires; and
E. Before sealing a search warrant, a court must consider whether redacting portions of the documents could achieve whatever confidentiality is necessary.
The entire order and its exhibits, including the cover letter from the attorneys representing the HDR and the other media entities, is available to read online:
The following is a summary of the motion to have the warrants unsealed and the gag order lifted:
» It is our (the plaintiffs) understanding that the only justification that’s been or could be made for the sealing of the search warrant is potential damage to the reputation or candidacy of Jason Reid in the May 8 primary.
» The gag order is vague and the April 25 orders (see timeline) describe potential damage to investigatory interests or fair trial rights but “identify no specific risk or danger that would be posed by release of the search warrants.”
» In this case, however, the public is in the dark, left to speculate about what evidence there may or may not be of a crime by a candidate for possibly the most important and powerful public office in the county. The public has the right to attend judicial proceedings.
» Closure (of the courts) may come only after representatives of the press and the general public are given an opportunity to be heard on the question of their exclusion. This did not happen.
» The United States tried to keep the New York Times, Washington Post, etc. from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, aka prior restraint. The Supreme Court found even in the case of leaked, classified military documents, there was no basis to keep these from being published because they did not pass the test the court has put in place in order to determine whether prior restraint is necessary. Therefore, a typical public document, such as these search warrants, should be unsealed and the gag order should be lifted.
» In order to keep the press from publishing, there are three things the U.S. Supreme Court states that the party seeking restraint must demonstrate: (1) there is a danger that is serious and imminent; (2) stopping the speech will stop the danger; and (3) the remedy is no broader than necessary, aka the order must be specific.
» In sum, the gag order entered in this case that broadly prohibited anyone with any information about these matters to discuss them – including with the media – is unconstitutional.
» We are arguing that any attempt to control publicity and commentary about this case or to dampen public speculation or interest is essentially pointless, because the public interest in this matter is already happening.
The HDR reached out to Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid’s personal attorney Lisa Dubs, who did not issue a comment.
The HDR also reached out to Jason Reid, who said: “Good luck.”
The HDR left a voicemail on Coy Reid’s cell phone. He did not contact us by press time.