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Sealed Search Warrants Rejected Due to Vague District Court Opinion

By George Khoury, Esq. on September 05, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a rare decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated and remanded an order of a lower district keeping the documents showing the probable cause basis for a pre-indictment search warrant under seal. These decisions are usually upheld as appellate courts generally provide quite a bit of deference to the lower court's findings of fact.

The appellant in the matter, Justin Smith, was the subject of multiple searches, authorized by warrants. He sought to have the probable cause documents supporting the warrants unsealed in order to find out why. However, the district court refused. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit's rationale for vacating the order does not really touch the merits of the matter at all, but rather focuses on procedure, and surprisingly, finds the district court failed in their duty to write a good opinion.

Major Malfunction

While it is not uncommon for lower courts to err, or abuse their discretion, in this case, it almost seems comical because the Fifth Circuit is basically calling out the district court for not providing any reasoning or analysis whatsoever to support their decision, which in turn, makes their job impossible. The Fifth Circuit explained:

This is not to say that a district court must go to painstaking lengths to review pre-indictment warrant materials, detailing factual findings on each line of every affidavit. This Court is sensitive to the district court's concern over the judicial resources that would have to be expended if that much detail were unilaterally required. As a result, the requisite degree of specificity will vary from case to case, but in most cases, a district court should at least articulate any reasons that would support sealing [a judicial document explain why it chose to seal [a judicial document].

Interestingly, the appellate court further implicitly complemented Smith, by pointing out that he was following the properly laid out path to getting the documents he sought.

The procedural route Smith chose here is precisely what the Bolish court recommended-ask the district court to unseal the affidavit and appeal a denial of that decision if necessary.

But, as the circuit court noted, with a proper decision, it seems the matter is simply destined to fall back in their laps soon again.

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