Stanislaus County Superior Court judges acted improperly when, at the request of law enforcement, they sealed search warrants in two Modesto investigations, one of those judges ruled Friday.
"The law says what the law says," declared Judge Roger M. Beauchesne, who had sealed one of the warrants. "The court erred in not providing proper notice to the public with regard to the sealing of all of the search warrants in both of these matters."
The ruling came in response to petitions filed by The Bee, which alleged improper sealing of search warrants in the investigation into Laci Peterson's disappearance, and the investigation into alleged fraud committed by Mayor Carmen Sabatino.
Beauchesne did not immediately open the warrants, pending a review of the documents in a closed hearing with law enforcement and prosecutors, to determine if any parts should remain sealed.
The Police Department has executed eight warrants in the Peterson investigation, according to orders sealing those warrants.
Peterson's family members reported her missing Christmas Eve. Police designated the case a homicide investigation in March but have not named any suspects.
In the Sabatino case, investigators from the district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department obtained a warrant to search his office, home and other locations for evidence of financial impropriety.
In both cases, judges sealed the search warrants without hearings. In the Peterson case, the first warrant was kept in the Police Department evidence room, and sealed 21 days after the warrant's execution, the sealing order shows.
State law requires the return of warrants to the issuing courts for public access 10 days after the issuance of the warrants.
Law enforcement can have a warrant sealed, but only after a hearing is held, Bee attorney Charity Kenyon argued. The hearing must be listed on the public court calendar and not be held in secret, she said.
Senior Deputy District Attorney David Harris argued that federal law shows that the need to conduct an investigation in secret trumps the public's right to access to court records. He also argued that the state law allowing that access was unconstitutional.
Beauchesne disagreed, noting that no constitutional challenges had been raised since the law was introduced in 1963.
"Are you asking me to find this section that's been on the books for 40-odd years to be unconstitutional?" Beauchesne asked Harris. "Are you asking me to carve out some new law this morning or what?"
Beauchesne said state law and court rules were designed to balance the public's right to access information about the government with law enforcement's need to successfully conduct investigations.
Beauchesne noted his personal reservation about opening the documents to the public, but said the legal issue was clear.
"My personal view about this is irrelevant," Beauchesne said before a courtroom filled with police detectives, and district attorney's prosecutors and investigators. Police Chief Roy Wasden and Sheriff Les Weidman sat with Ceres Public Safety Director Art De Werk just behind Harris.
Beauchesne declared the warrants conditionally sealed pending his review of them. That process could take two to five days, he said.
Court rules require the judge to find an "overriding interest," such as protecting a confidential informant, to seal any part of the documents.
"The court has sent a clear message that proper procedures -- and the law -- must be followed before the public can be denied access to public documents," Mark Vasché, The Bee's executive editor, said after the ruling.
District Attorney James Brazelton, who sat in the front row of the courtroom with Laci Peterson's mother, brother and sister, said he would appeal the ruling "immediately."
"This ruling is in opposition to how law enforcement has proceeded throughout history in California," Brazelton said.
But it was unclear when an appeal would be filed. Harris said outside the courtroom that a decision to appeal would be made after the judge reviewed the warrants and determined what sections, if any, would be made public.
No appeal had been filed by Friday afternoon, clerks at Superior Court and the state Court of Appeal in Fresno said.
Wasden said the ruling potentially allows suspects to get information about investigations, thus undercutting law enforcement's ability to do its job.
"Clearly that information needs to be protected," the police chief said. "I understand the position the judge is in. I think there needs to be some clarification of these issues, possibly with some legislative remedy."
Vasché described the ruling as "a victory for the people and for open government."
At the same time, Vasché said, The Bee has great concerns over the increasing secrecy on the part of local officials and agencies, and will aggressively defend "the public's right to know."
Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.