Update: The Secret Warrants of Walworth County | FREE WHITEWATER
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Update: The Secret Warrants of Walworth County

On December 28th, the Janesville Gazette published a story entitled, “Walworth County search warrants could disappear.”  I posted on that astonishing possibility, in  a post entitled, “The Secret Warrants of Walworth County.”  Here’s what the Gazette uncovered in its original story:

ELKHORN – In some Wisconsin counties, sealed court documents hold back details from search warrants for a limited time while investigations are ongoing.

In Walworth County, seals have no time limit, and some records could disappear from the public eye altogether.

Motions to seal search warrants in Walworth County ask that all documents and their existence be kept under wraps. The seal acts as a seal on itself, as if the search never happened, leading some warrants to be kept away from public scrutiny.

The procedure gives law enforcement the power to search homes virtually undetected. The paper trail disappears, and interested parties are unable to find out the basis for the execution of a search warrant or how it was conducted.

The story made clear how anomalous and aberrant was Walworth County’s practice – different from other counties, including nearby ones.

In my original post, I observed that

How very odd, though that “Locally, Koss said changing the language on applications for seals is a start that would come from Koss’ office …” and yet D.A. Koss declares that “It’s never come up before,” Koss said. “Now that we’re having this discussion, we’ll address it.”

Oh my – the Walworth County District Attorney’s office initiates these requests, but it takes a newspaper to bring the matter to the attention of the lawyers in that office? They didn’t otherwise think about the nature of their own requests?

Yes, it did take a newspaper.  If the Gazette had not published this story, the deeply un-American practice of keeping secret warrants, sealed forever, would have continued unchanged.    This was no faraway tale, but a wrongful practice here, among us, as residents and citizens.

There’s a good – a truly good – result of the Gazette‘s story: search warrants in Walworth County will not remain, as a general practice, permanently sealed.  In an update to its original story, the Gazette published, on February 5th, “DA: We have addressed sealed documents loophole.”  The Gazette reports that

District Attorney Phil Koss said he has changed the language his prosecutors will use when requesting search warrants be sealed. The new form sets a six-month expiration date for the seal.

The change comes after a Gazette investigation showed search warrants in Walworth County could be shielded forever from public scrutiny, allowing police to search homes virtually undetected.

One should note that this was always a practice that was within Koss’s ability to manage.  Koss commends the Gazette, and he rightly should.  It’s telling that he commends them for discovering a loophole, when they have done far more — they’ve revealed his own practice of drafting motions such that they would remain sealed.

It was an astonishingly bad, secretive practice, brought to light through the work of a real and solid newspaper.  I have contended consistently that among the best tonics for our distorted politics is a press that diligently reports on public officials’ actions.

Bloggers — modern-day pamphleteers — aren’t anywhere as important as a solid newspaper.  There’s simply no comparison.

It’s where — in places like Whitewater — that there isn’t a vigorous hometown newspaper that a community becomes thick with official distortions, omissions, grandiose claims, and  self-serving lies.  We have a hometown paper that doesn’t have a hometown office (Whitewater Register), a nearby paper that scampers after local officials to emulate the Register‘s slavish deference (Daily Union), and a local politician’s commercial website (Whitewater Banner) that might as well be an extended campaign ad for incumbency.

They are both cause and consequence of our mediocre politics.

I’m not a reporter, nor a journalist, and I aspire to neither line of work. It’s enough to be able to read, to see the difference between worthy reporting and sycophancy.    I’m truly appreciative of the former, and legitimately critical of the latter.

I’ve also no doubt — absolutely none — that the embarrassing flacking and spinning of which we are afflicted has no future.  It causes a great deal of truly regrettable damage, and we would be more prosperous if it disappeared overnight, but disappear it will, over time.  Until then, one enters the fray a happy warrior like New York’s Al Smith was, convinced and confirmed.

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