I had a citizen-journalist contact me today about a clerk in a rural county who was refusing a request to copy an arrest warrant.
The warrant had already been executed and it had not been sealed (nor was there any pending motion to seal it). The clerk simply he/she would not make copies. The citizen was allowed to look at the warrant, but as soon as he started to make handwritten notes about the warrant, “they took the documents and said writing notes was copying” and thus prohibited.
It reminded me of “All the Presidents Men.” I can’t remember if it was Woodward or Bernstein, but one of them was trying to get a list of names/numbers of staffers on the Committee to Re-elect the President (I think that was the office) they might contact for an interview. “Woodstein” was allowed to view the roster but was not allowed to copy it. So, he began studying the list in the clerk’s office, and he started breaking the list into small parts. He’d memorize just the names and numbers in each part, then he’d excuse himself to go to the bathroom. There in the loo, he’d scribble down what he’d memorized onto a small piece of paper, which he’d put back in his pocket until he could memorize another group of names and take another bathroom break. (I wonder if the clerk thought “Woodstein” needed that Flomax medication.)
Back to the local court clerk. His/her actions also remind me that as soon as illogical barriers to access start being thrown up (you can’t see this record on Tuesdays; you can summarize, but you can’t write the exact words; etc.) it immediately raises a red flag.
How many people would just stop copying and never think about the warrant again? How many more people will become suspicious that there’s something there that they don’t want the public to know?
There might not be ANYTHING wrong with the warrant. It might be the best written and most justified warrant in the history of warrants. But as soon as a random barrier like “no copying” gets thrown in, suspicion is almost automatic.
If an exemption or code provision applies, then government can use it. But don’t make up rules. No one likes to play that game.