Search warrants are powerful. Yet few N.C. courts track how often they’re kept secret

Search warrants are powerful. Yet few N.C. courts track how often they’re kept secret
Because some cases never go to trial, the search warrant is at times the only way the public ever learns what police know about matters of public concern. (Source: WECT)

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - In the world of public records, the search warrant is arguably the most helpful document to inform the public of details about ongoing criminal investigations. And because some cases never go to trial, the search warrant is at times the only way the public ever learns what police know about matters of public concern.

Within the last two months, WECT and its audience have learned critical details about the investigation into the New Hanover County Schools teacher sex scandal as a result of search warrants used to gather evidence against former band teacher Peter Frank. Like most search warrants, they were a matter of public record.

But there are occasions when a judge allows a warrant to be sealed, usually to maintain the integrity of an investigation. WECT, in conjunction with a dozen newsrooms across the state of North Carolina, researched this issue and found that most courts do not track how often they keep these records secret. More concerning, they do not have a centralized record system to track which warrants have been sealed, opening the possibility that search warrants could be lost, or even intentionally hidden to protect the reputations of those subject to the search.

While there are legitimate investigatory reasons to keep many law enforcement and court records confidential, certain basic details of a case remain public information in the interest of transparent government. This gives the citizens a reasonable idea of what law enforcement officers are doing and also prevents abuse of power.

For example, the time, date, location and nature of a reported crime are public record. If a person is arrested, the crime they are charged with is a matter of public record. Most contents of a 911 call are also public record.

But when it comes to getting details, search warrants are typically the most valuable record. Because the Constitution of the United States guarantees people the right to privacy and protects against unreasonable search and seizure, law enforcement officers are required to get a warrant from the courts in most cases before conducting a search of private property.

The law requires search warrants to be reasonable and specific. Police can’t just raid a suspect’s home to see what they might find. Investigators must spell out to the courts specifically what they are looking for, like drugs, weapons, or computer hard drives that may help them prove a crime has been committed. Officers must also give probable cause why they believe that evidence exists.

“These rules that seemingly protect drug dealers and murderers and rapists and so forth also protect all the rest of us,” said Michael Crowell, a lawyer and former faculty member at the UNC School of Government who focused on judicial administration. “It's an expression of the value we put on our rights.”

Making the warrant public, says Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, acts as a check on the incredible authority of the state.

“These are very intense, powerful steps by our government,” Freeman said. “The public has the right and needs to have the ability to review the exercise of that authority.”

Search Warrants Expose Key Details in Teacher Sex Scandal

In January, search warrants gave the public extremely pertinent details about the inner workings of New Hanover County Schools in the midst of a teacher sex scandal. The disturbing details may have never come to light otherwise.

Peter Frank, who worked as a band teacher at Roland Grise Middle School since 1997, was arrested on January 27 for sex crimes against six of his students. At the time of his arrest, news media only knew what we had been told through press releases by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s office and New Hanover County Schools: that detectives were aware of alleged crimes spanning from 2003 to 2019, and that Mr. Frank had been suspended with pay. The schools noted that Frank had been an employee since 1997 and that he was suspended in 2015 for “an incident not involving students.”

Three days after his arrest, thanks to a search warrant that had been served and returned to the New Hanover County Courthouse, WECT was able to get a much clearer picture of what officers believed Frank – and the schools – had done.

The search warrants revealed that Frank was counseled by school district officials for having “inappropriate relationships” with students during his tenure at the middle school. The document detailed years of inappropriate conduct with female students noted in his personnel records and substantiated by searches of Frank’s phone and computer. A subsequent search explains how detectives became aware of a seventh victim, who Frank is accused of having oral sex with on numerous occasions in the school band room back in 1999.

Those newly public details sparked public outcry, and Superintendent Tim Markley and Human Resources Director John Welmers resigned the following week.

Members of the public had previously called for Markley’s termination, as evidence mounted that administrators knew about inappropriate relationships between teachers and students but failed to stop it. Prosecutor Connie Jordan announcing in court that another teacher, Mike Kelly, had admitted to detectives that he was investigated by school officials for exposing himself to a student was damning to school administrators. But in theory, it was still Kelly’s word against theirs.

By contrast, the information from search warrants about the contents of Frank’s personnel file likely pushed things to a breaking point. It was now virtually impossible for Welmers and Markley to maintain plausible deniability that no one brought these relationships to the attention of school administrators.

Search warrants themselves amount to serious intrusions for the subjects of warrants. That’s why Crowell said it’s critical that law enforcement provide public justification when executing their authority.

“When that information is sealed, and it all becomes unknown as to exactly what's being done, why it's being done, then it's harder to see whether it's being abused,” Crowell said.

Sealed Search Warrants

Temporarily sealing search warrants can be necessary in situations where investigators need time to build their case before tipping off a suspect and allowing them to potentially destroy evidence. A case in point, search warrants were sealed following the murder of State Trooper Kevin Conner until authorities could arrest the prime suspect.

Similarly, search warrants were sealed following the death of Paitin Fields. The 5-year-old was sexually assaulted and then strangled to death in Pender County in 2017. The search warrants in her case were sealed for over a year, in part because investigators had not been able to charge anyone with her death, and did not want to tip off her killer regarding what they were looking for.

When unsealed in Dec. 2018, search warrants indicated that after her death, investigators took cheek swabs from Paitin’s uncle, David Prevatte, as well as Paitin’s step-grandfather. Paitin’s autopsy report stated that the pair transported her to Pender Memorial on the morning of Nov. 13, 2017.

Two days after Paitin was declared brain dead, Prevatte failed a polygraph exam “miserably” on Nov. 15, 2017, according to the search warrants. Paitin’s step-grandfather passed the exam.

But by far the most potentially revealing information was found in search warrants filed for information on Prevatte’s three known Facebook accounts. Those warrants list several factors that support the suspicion of Prevatte’s involvement in Paitin’s murder, including no visible signs of remorse, a “violent temper,” and possible racial motivations – the first inklings of a potential motive.

To this day, Paitin’s death remains unsolved.

Recommended Tracking Guidelines

In Southeastern North Carolina, it wasn’t easy to find information about sealed search warrants in our local courts. Despite multiple attempts to reach them, only three of the five Clerks of Court in the WECT viewing area even responded to our questions about specific sealed search warrants, and their methods for tracking them. We were never able to reach Bladen Clerk of Court Niki Dennis and Pender Clerk of Court Elizabeth Craver via phone or email.

Clerks in New Hanover, Brunswick and Columbus counties told us search warrants there are rarely sealed, and they have no specific way to track them when they are. New Hanover County Clerk Jan Kennedy explained that they do keep them, but said we would need to give her individual motion/case names to obtain them because she doesn’t have a list of them.

However, except in very high profile cases, there’s no practical way to know a warrant had been sealed, much less have the relevant motion or case names to provide the clerk.

In Wake County, a 2008 dispute over search warrants being sealed in a high-profile murder case there resulted in Capital Broadcasting taking legal action to have the warrants unsealed. An appeals court ruled that temporarily sealing the warrants was proper to protect the integrity of the investigation, and noted that a senior county judge had already laid out specific rules requiring the court to account for sealed warrants."

“The Clerk shall establish a log, listing by caption search warrants that have been sealed, the date the order to seal was signed, the date the order expires and the name of the assistant district attorney assigned to the case. The log will be available for public inspection,” the court order reads.

WECT has learned that appellate court ruling is only enforceable in Wake County, but the UNC School of Government relied on this case when creating recommended guidelines for tracking sealed search warrants.

Their recommended guidelines read in part, “The Clerk of Superior Court shall maintain as a public record information related to all sealing orders. For each such sealing order the Clerk shall make available at least the following information: (a) the identity of the law enforcement agency or official at whose request the search warrant was issued; (b) the identity of the attorney who signed the sealing motion; (c) the identity of the judge who signed the sealing order; (d) the date the order was signed; and (e) the date and time the order expires.”

To our knowledge, none of our local clerks are maintaining such a system.

This story was reported by Jonathan Drew, of the Associated Press; Kate Martin and Frank Taylor, of Carolina Public Press; Doug Miller, of The Charlotte Observer; Chris Day and Julian Eure, of The Daily Advance; Lorry Williams and Paul Woolverton, of The Fayetteville Observer; Josh Shaffer, of The News & Observer; Amelia Harper, of the Rocky Mount Telegram; Ann McAdams and Brandon Wissbaum, of WECT-TV; Jenn Emert, of WLOS-TV; Tyler Dukes, of WRAL-TV; and Jason deBruyn, of WUNC.

Copyright 2020 WECT. All rights reserved.