EDITOR’s NOTE: This article was originally published at 12:45 on May 2, 2018. It was updated at 7:20 p.m. to reflect a change in the date and location of an upcoming judicial hearing.
A Catawba County court has ordered the seal of a search warrant and related documents involving Jason Reid, a former sheriff’s officer in both Catawba and Lincoln counties who is currently the subject of a State Bureau of Investigation probe. He is also running to replace his father, Coy Reid, as Catawba County Sheriff.
Carolina Public Press has joined a coalition of news media organizations including the Hickory Daily Record, Charlotte Observer, WBTV, WSOC and the Associated Press, in asking the court to vacate the seal orders.
The coalition filed a motion Tuesday arguing that the court’s actions violated multiple provisions of the North Carolina Public Records Law as well as the state constitution and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
A hearing on the motion was initially set for 9 a.m. Monday in Catawba County, however that was changed late Wednesday to 3 p.m. Thursday in Gaston County.
The probe and the seals
Reid’s former employer, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, received a complaint in August 2017 about a GPS tracking device found on the vehicle of a woman whom he had previously dated, according to both the coalition’s legal filings and various news media reports.
The woman reported receiving texts and images from Reid showing that he knew where she was. At the request of Lincoln County Sheriff David Carpenter, District Attorney Mike Miller referred the matter, potentially involving stalking, to the SBI for investigation.
At 3:45 a.m. on April 19, the SBI obtained a warrant in Union County to search the narcotics division at the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office in Newton for evidence in relation to the ongoing investigation. Agents conducted a search there at 8 a.m.
Sheriff Coy Reid’s personal attorney, Lisa Andrew Dubs, asked Superior Court Judge Daniel Kuehnert to seal the warrant later that day. The coalition’s motion stressed that neither the SBI nor the district attorney filed a written motion to have the warrant sealed.
According to the coalition’s motion, Judge Kuehnert heard no legal arguments about the sealing request and issued no written order at that time. Instead he placed the documents in an envelope and signed his name.
On April 25, WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner contacted the judge about the sealed documents. The judge then called a “closed session” of the court during which he issued a new order, sealing the previous April 19 sealing order itself and placing a gag order on any discussion of the contents of the warrant or “talking about the matter” until the court unseals it.
Coalition challenges ‘clandestine’ court actions
The coalition’s motion described the judge’s stated reasoning for the seals and gag order as vague, referencing only “potential” concerns but no specific ones to make this case different from any others in which warrants or sealing orders remain unsealed.
The coalition argued that the court’s actions failed to meet the North Carolina Supreme Court’s standard of a compelling governmental interest in order for limits to be placed on the normal access to court documents, such as warrants. Even then, state law and legal precedent require that such limits be “narrowly tailored” for that compelling interest and not excessive in scope.
Further state precedent requires that the justification for sealing must be stated on the record and “supported by specific findings,” the coalition motion argued.
That’s a potentially significant issue in Catawba County, which has adopted a formal administrative order defining specific circumstances and procedures for sealing a search warrant.
These include written motions that set out the grounds for sealing filed with the clerk of court, as well as court consideration of whether portions of the warrant could have been redacted, allowing the rest to remain unsealed.
“Because the parties affected by the search warrant — the Office of the Sheriff, Mr. Reid and law enforcement — all have knowledge of the investigation, the search warrant and the search itself, the sealing order does not serve a compelling interest that cannot be met through less restrictive mean,” the coalition motion argued. “… The only justification that has or could be made for the sealing of the search warrant is potential damage to the reputation or candidacy of Jason Reid in the May 8 primary.
“Neither of these interests supports the extraordinary measure of sealing search warrants. Such warrants are public as a matter of law, reflecting the considered opinion of the North Carolina General Assembly that the public has a legitimate interest and right to see them.
“In this case however, the public is in the dark, left to speculate about what evidence there may or may not be of a crime by a candidate for possibly the most important and powerful public office in the county.”
The coalition also challenged the closure of the proceedings, including not allowing the press to be heard on the issue.
“These repeated clandestine actions fly in the face of constitutional and statutory protections for public transparency and should be overturned,” the coalition’s motion argued.
Regarding the gag order, the coalition argued that, in this case, it represents an unconstitutional prior restraint on the news media, which the U.S. Supreme Court has described as “presumptively unconstitutional.” The coalition noted that state courts have found that indirectly issuing gag orders by placing them on trial participants does not avoid the presumption of unconstitutionality, citing a 1996 ruling in which the North Carolina Court of Appeals called such orders “repugnant to the basic values of an open society.”
Reid’s troubled history
Reid issued a statement on his campaign’s Facebook page last week denying firsthand knowledge of the situation and suggesting that it was being trumped up to hurt his political chances.
“I learned about this just like every one of you, from my smartphone,” Reid wrote, according to previous media reports.
“This is the most unbelievable abuse of power I’ve ever witnessed in my entire career. Special agents from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation who work unsolved murders, were instructed to look into accusations made against me on misdemeanor charges eight months ago from a woman I dated. They also woke up a Superior Court Judge at 3:45 in the morning, two hours away, so they could execute and serve a search warrant on the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office at the exact same time the very first vote in Catawba County was cast. I never placed any type of tracking device on that woman’s vehicle.”
It’s not clear why Sheriff Carpenter, in Lincoln County, who is a Republican like Reid, or District Attorney Miller, also a Republican, would have wanted to harm Reid’s political chances or have concocted such a scheme for that purpose.
This is not the first time that Reid’s actions have received serious scrutiny, straining his relationship with the courts.
The Lincoln Times-News reported in September 2017 that Catawba County District Attorney David Learner had barred Reid from testifying in cases within the state’s 25th Judicial District. A letter from Learner to Reid explained, “My office has a constitutional obligation to disclose to criminal defendants information that could be used to impeach the testimony of a prosecution witness, including instances of untruthfulness.”
Learner accused Reid of dishonesty while acting as a lieutenant in charge of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office narcotics division and at least one other case, according to the Times-News.
“My office has received information from Lincoln County prosecutors, as well as one or more law enforcement officers, pertaining to (constitutional disclosure rights) issues that arose” in a case involving Reid, Learner’s letter said. “It has been reported that, as a supervisor, you instructed subordinates to make false assertions in criminal investigative reports…”
Learner noted nearly 60 pending narcotics cases that the Lincoln County District Attorney’s Office dismissed as a result of doubts about officers’ integrity.
Reid challenged Lerner’s conclusions and denied direct connection to the dismissed cases. He also noted that the same prosecutors who had dismissed the Lincoln cases had called him as a witness in other cases since that time.
Sheriff Carpenter also cast doubt on Learner’s assertions about Reid, describing one case as “a disagreement between the District Attorney and the reporting officer on terminology that was used in the report.”
“I’ve never been made aware, especially by our local DA or the courts here in Lincoln County, that Mr. Reid has directed subordinates to make false assertions,” Carpenter told the Times-News.
The Times-News also reported in September that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will not “accept or prosecute cases in which Capt. Reid is a potential witness,” though a spokesperson did not provide a reason for his exclusion.