Raleigh, N.C. — Dozens of search warrants, some dating as far back as 1992, were recently unsealed by a Wake County judge in an effort to make public records available to the public in a timely manner.
In May, Judge Donald Stephens handed down an order saying warrants that police have executed must be returned to the court in a timely manner and agencies must follow specific guidelines for sealing and unsealing these documents.
“His creating this process has created an orderly system to keep our records and to make them available,” Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
The warrants released included documents from: a 1992 fraud case involving the state Department of Correction; the 2000 high-profile murder case of Eric Miller; a suspected terrorism case in 2002; and a series of armed robberies of Raleigh jewelry stores in 2005.
“We deal with a couple hundred thousand criminal cases every year, and it's not surprising to me that we put out the fire that's closest to the door and as soon as that fire is put out, we move onto the next one and we don't think about these things,” Willoughby said.
Attorney Amanda Martin said a lot of the warrants recently unsealed should never have been sealed in the first place.
“I think it is astounding how many things were sealed that we didn't even know about. I think it's amazing that they have apparently stayed under seal for this number of years,” Martin said.
Martin represented Capitol Broadcasting Company and The News and Observer in seeking to unseal warrants in the murder of Cary mother-of-two Nancy Cooper. Those warrants were unsealed last week.
At issue is the bigger picture of setting a precedent in which public records are not routinely sealed, Martin said.
“These are extraordinary measures that should only undertaken when extraordinary circumstances permit it,” Martin said.
When search warrants are sealed in Wake County, a public record shows when the document has been sealed and when that document will be unsealed.