Update 2012-03-07: The Senate bill as been passed out of committee in the House, with a change. The House change does not actually alter the effect of the bill in any noticeable way. If it passes the full House, I believe it will have to go back to the Senate for the change to be approved (very likely to happen). Then it will go to the governor to be signed. Since it was the governor who asked for this, there is little to no chance he won’t sign it.
Like I said before, I think we’re buggered.
Update 4: The senate version has passed, unanimously. It looks like the House version has not but is still in play, but the House has adjourned for the day. Unless the House rejects both versions, it looks like this will become Virginia law within the next day or so.
Considering that the House version passed out of committee on a unanimous vote, I think we’re buggered.
Update 2: I should have done this from the start, but I’d like to ask anyone who reads this and has a blog to help spread the word. If we can get enough Virginians contacting their representatives before these bills come up for a vote, maybe we can kill them by a significant margin. The governor is the one who requested the measure, so if either bill passes both houses there is little doubt that he will sign. There is an “emergency” provision in each bill that specifically states it becomes effective immediately, rather than July 1 like most bills.
I’ve also emailed a few other bloggers to help. SayUncle already has a post up, and Jay G. has said he’ll get one up this afternoon. Thanks!
Update 3: Add Weer’d Beard to the list, too. Thanks!
One of the tools of tyrants is secret warrants.
Two bills recently introduced by Gov. Bob McDonnell would permanently seal search warrants issued to use a tracking device to follow a suspect.
Such warrants would be unsealed only at the request of a prosecutor or defendant. Typically, most search warrants become public record 15 days or less after being granted by a judge.
I can see the necessity, on occasion, of sealing a search warrant during the course of an investigation. As far as I know (though I could be wrong), there is a process in place for doing so that requires the investigators to go in front of a judge and explain why it needs to be sealed, and for how long.
But that is the point: there must be a valid reason, such as the likelihood that public knowledge of the warrant would compromise the investigation or place investigators at great risk. It is not automatic.
There may be times, rare though they would be, that there would be reason to seal a search warrant beyond the end of the trial. But there can be absolutely no valid reason in a free society that any search warrant should be sealed permanently, and a government that pushes for such warrants to be sealed automatically is especially chilling. Search warrants, and the affidavits supporting them, are records that the citizens of a nation can use to monitor the behaviour of their government, and must have access to in order to do so adequately. As just one example, look at the search warrant affidavit in the killing of Jose Guerena. The inadequacies of that affidavit, and the results of the ‘botched’ search, are signs of a legal system out of control – one that the citizens of Arizona must act to bring back under control.
There’s also a disturbing First Amendment issue.
The bills also stipulate that a newspaper reporter or Internet blogger who publishes the existence of a search warrant related to tracking devices could be found guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, and could spend up to a year in jail.
Just as there can sometimes be valid reasons to keep a warrant sealed during an investigation, there can sometimes be valid reasons to keep the very existence of the warrant secret at the same time, and often for the same reasons. But keeping the existence of the warrant secret permanently is even worse than keeping the contents secret – citizens cannot question a warrant when they do not even know it exists. These bills would punish someone who legally obtained knowledge of the warrant – say a roommate or family member who accepts service for the subject, or a neighbor who sees it posted on the subject’s door – if they reveal even its existence to anyone other than the person who was the subject of the warrant.
You can find the Senate version here, and the House version here.
I have already contacted both my Delegate and Senator. If you live in Virginia, I urge you to do the same. If you’re not sure who your representatives are, you can find out here.
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Update: Roanoke Times editorial and discussion can be found here.
[Source: Roanoke Times article, retrieved 3/2/12]