Legal Hotline: Arrest and Search Warrant Records
Legal Hotline: Arrest and Search Warrant Records
Q: Which rules govern public access to arrest and search warrants and their supporting documentation, like affidavits of probable cause?
A: Public access to arrest warrants and search warrants is governing by the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, which must be applied consistent with the Constitutional and common law presumption of access that attaches to judicial records.
If “arrest warrant information” or search warrant information is filed with a court, such as a magisterial district court or court of common pleas, it is presumptively public under the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions, as well as common law, and the applicable rules of criminal procedure must be applied consistent with that presumption.
We will explore the relevant rules in detail below, but the general quick guide to public access to arrest and search warrant records is:
- Arrest warrants and supporting records are public 72 hours after issuance, or upon execution, whichever occurs first, unless the records are sealed by a court of record for good cause.
- Search warrants supporting affidavits of probable cause are public upon execution, unless the records are sealed by a court of record for good cause.
“…the criminal complaint in cases in which an arrest warrant is issued, the arrest warrant, any affidavit(s) of probable cause, and documents or information related to the case.”
In most circumstances, search warrants are obtained from the magisterial district courts pursuant to Rule 513. This rule requires the affiant to appear personally before the issuing authority (judge) in person or via advanced communication technology to make a showing of probable cause supported by an affidavit of probable case. If the judge finds probable cause, the search warrant is issued, and it is public upon request unless the affiant has made a request for delay in public dissemination under Rule 513(C) or a motion to seal under Rule 513.1.
Rule 513(C) allows for a delay in public dissemination of arrest warrant information if:
- The affidavit includes facts and circumstances that are alleged to establish good cause for delay, and
- The issuing authority (judge) finds good cause for delay exists.
If the conditions of Rule 513(C) are met, public access to arrest warrant information may be delayed for up to 72 hours from the time of issuance or until the search warrant is executed, whichever occurs first.
Restrictions on public access beyond 72 hours after issuance can only occur if a court has entered a seal order based upon a showing of good cause made on the record under Rule 513.1. Only courts of record, i.e. common pleas or appellate courts, can issue seal orders; magisterial district courts, arraignment court magistrates and municipal courts are not courts of record and as such cannot seal judicial records.
In order to obtain a seal order under Rule 513.1, the attorney for the Commonwealth must file a motion to seal, at the time the complaint is filed, and include in the affidavit the facts and circumstances that are alleged to establish good cause for the sealing of the arrest warrant information. If a judge finds good cause supporting a seal, the judge shall issue the seal order certifying good cause and set the date and time for the expiration of the seal. The records may not be sealed for longer than 60 days. The court can extend the seal indefinitely for up to 30 days at a time for good cause, but each new request for a seal must be approved by a judge and supported by a showing of good cause. The sealed arrest warrant information, the sealing order, and the order designating the proper issuing authority shall be filed with the clerk of courts in the judicial district in which the charges are being filed, and these filings should be noted on the court’s docket. Public access is prohibited until the expiration of the seal order or the court’s unsealing of the record upon motion of the attorney for the Commonwealth.
Most search warrants are issued by the magisterial district courts, which as noted above, cannot seal judicial records. Rule 212 requires courts to provide public access to search warrants and their supporting affidavits upon execution of the search warrant. Public access is not conditioned on the return of inventory filed by the law enforcement agency that executed the warrant, which can take a substantial amount of time after execution. Public access under the rule is conditioned only upon “execution” of the search warrant. Unexecuted search warrants are not public, and the rule allows the court to destroy the warrant and supporting documentation.
To limit public access to executed search warrants and supporting affidavits, the Commonwealth must obtain a seal order under Rule 211 from a court of record. As noted above, magisterial district courts are not courts of record and cannot seal judicial records; only a court of common pleas or appellate court can seal judicial records.
Similar to Rule 513.1, Rule 211 allows a court of record to seal search warrants and their supporting affidavits of probable cause if the attorney for the Commonwealth alleges facts and circumstances which are alleged to establish good cause supporting a seal order. If a judge finds good cause exists, the court must certify on the face of the warrant that for good cause shown the affidavit is sealed and shall state the length of time the affidavit will be sealed, which may be no longer than 60 days. Seal orders for search warrants can be extended an unlimited number of times for up to 30 days each time, if good cause is shown.
As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Please consult your news organization’s corporate counsel or the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.