UPDATE: The following article, published May 5, 2018, discusses issues related to an SBI investigation of Catawba County sheriff candidate Jason Reid. On May 8, 2018, Newton Police Chief Don Brown defeated Reid in the Republican primary by a wide margin.
A judge allowed the release late Friday of a heavily redacted version of a sealed search warrant that the State Bureau of Investigation served on the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office on April 19, as part of an ongoing investigation of sheriff candidate Jason Reid.
Until February, Reid headed the county’s narcotics division. He is also the son of the current sheriff, Coy Reid. A former girlfriend has accused Jason Reid of placing a tracking device on her vehicle to stalk her.
Friday’s ruling came in response to a motion from a news media coalition, which included Carolina Public Press, The Charlotte Observer, Hickory Daily Record, Associated Press, WSOC-TV and WBTV-TV. A judge heard arguments on the coalition motion Thursday in Gastonia.
The nature of the warrant shows that the SBI is looking into whether Reid misused law enforcement equipment, which the tracking device appears to be. During the search, the SBI was apparently looking for equipment related to the tracking device, related records, software and data files.
SBI agents seeking the warrant said they had matched a phone number used to send harassing texts to the woman to a cellphone account belonging to Reid.
The investigation, the search and the seal
SBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Christy Hearne, of the SBI’s Harrisburg office in Cabarrus County, applied for a search warrant in the case on April 19, according to the warrant. Superior Court Judge Jeff Carpenter of Union County, who heard the motion to allow public access to the warrant this week, received the application from the SBI at 4:12 a.m. on April 19.
Judge Carpenter approved the warrant, which allowed agents to serve it at 8 a.m. on April 19 at a narcotics division office of the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office, the address of which has been redacted. Neither Judge Carpenter, the SBI agents nor the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office sought a seal of the warrant at that time.
During Thursday’s hearing, Judge Carpenter referred several times to the minor nature of the misdemeanor on which Reid is being investigating, suggesting that it seemed unusual for the SBI and Attorney General’s Office to go to such lengths, such as waking up a judge in another county, to investigate something so minor.
However, the warrant actually showed that the SBI is investigating Reid on suspicion of at least three charges relevant to this specific search. These include stalking, a Class A1 misdemeanor under GS 14-277.3A; cyberstalking, a Class 2 misdemeanor under G.S. 14-196.3; and willfully failing to discharge his duties, a Class 1 misdemeanor under G.S. 14-230.
The latter charge could be especially significant for a potential future office-holder, since it calls for the removal of sheriffs and other public officials convicted under this statute, in addition to other punishment.
During the Thursday’s hearing, Judge Carpenter questioned Leslie Dismukes of the Attorney General’s Office about the nature and origins of the April 19 warrant in contrast to other parts of the case.
Dismukes acknowledged that previous search warrants had been issued in this case under seal at the request of the Attorney General’s Office. She did not describe in open court the dates, locations or natures of those warrants or the reasons why they were sealed. Dismukes also indicated that although the SBI had been investigating for some time, the Attorney General’s Office had only become involved in April.
CPP contacted a spokeperson for Attorney General Josh Stein’s on Friday to address these issues, but she said she could not comment at this time.
The judge asked Dismukes why the Attorney General’s Office had not also sought to seal the April 19 warrant. She said that had been considered, but her office had ultimately decided that it would be sufficient to have certain details in the warrant, such as names, places and procedures related to undercover law enforcement work, redacted from the warrant.
Reid has used his campaign Facebook page to challenge the timing of this search warrant, which occurred just as early voting in the sheriff’s race began.
Media attention at the time has also raised questions about who was leaking information and why. At least one TV reporter has told CPP he had advance knowledge and was at the Sheriff’s Office when the search warrant arrived.
Although the Attorney General’s Office did not asked to have the warrant sealed, Superior Court Judge Daniel Kuehnert acted to seal the warrant and place it in an envelope on April 19. He did not disclose his reasoning for doing so or issue a formal seal order at the time. Details related to Kuehnert’s actions may have been discussed Thursday during a closed portion of the proceedings, but information about what happened during that portion of the hearing remains unavailable.
Kuehnert did not receive a written request to seal the warrant from the Catawba County District Attorney’s Office or from the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, which an administrative order in Catawba County appears to require.
The media coalition’s filings in the case suggested that Sheriff Reid’s personal attorney Lisa Dubbs asked the Kuehnert to seal the documents. However, Judge Carpenter said Thursday that the administrative order did not prevent Kuehnert from sealing the warrant on his own accord, which the Judge Carpenter speculated that Judge Kuehnert might have done.
According to published media reports, the sheriff has previously denied that he or his lawyer asked for the documents to be sealed.
After a TV reporter contacted the Catawba County courts about the warrant and why it had been sealed, Kuehnert conducted a closed court session on April 28 in which he sealed his original sealing order and placed a gag order on the case. The media coalition filed their motion to vacate these seals on Wednesday.
What’s in the warrant
Like most search warrants, the April 19 one includes a description of what is being searched and why. The most detailed information appears in an attachment establishing the probable cause for the search.
Although some of what the SBI was seeking has been blacked out, agents were looking for contracts, invoices, payments, emails, letters and other documentation of services that someone had provided, presumably in relation to the use of a transmitter and recording device.
The SBI also was looking for tracking equipment with a certain SIMS card and bearing specific identifying codes and serial number, presumably matching the device found on the ex-girlfriend’s vehicle. Agents additionally were seeking any documentation about who had access to which tracking devices at which times. The SBI wanted access as well to training and training attendance records related to these devices and related software.
The warrant specifically sought communications and computer equipment issued to Jason Reid during his time working for the sheriff’s office, and any files that he may have generated on office computers. The warrant, written in advance of the search, provided no indication of what, if anything, agents turned up.
In establishing probable cause, Special Agent Hearne said a 25-year-old woman who previously had a “romantic” relationship with Jason Reid reported to Lincoln County Sheriff Carpenter last year that someone had placed a device on her car “without her permission.” She later “received several text messages from Jason Coy Reid which detailed locations where (she) had traveled.”
The woman’s name had been redacted, but the warrant indicated that she is not affiliated with the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office. She may be a resident of Lincoln County, where Jason Reid worked previously. Prior to joining the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office, Reid was a lieutenant under Sheriff Carpenter and ran the Lincoln County agency’s narcotics division for several years.
Hearne said Sheriff Carpenter contacted her on Aug. 3 “in reference to a (tracking device) located and removed from a (silver) 2013 Kia Optima LX owned by (the ex-girlfriend).” The agent immediately noted the codes and serial number on the device, as well as a white adhesive label that further identified it.
Hearne also described a text message that the woman had received on August 2 that included a photo of the vehicle. According to Hearne, analysis of the cell number used to send the text confirmed on Oct. 4, 2017, that it was from a Verizon Wireless cell number assigned to Jason Reid. Later the SBI received Verizon’s records from the phone account that showed multiple calls and texts to the former girlfriend during the time in question, Hearne said.
Hearne reported that the agency consulted with the Federal Bureau of investigation on phone numbers that Reid had been using. They also provided the tracking device to the FBI for analysis, she said. The FBI found that this type of device did not record data internally but instead transmitted it, potentially to a corresponding device attached to a computer that could record location data.
Most of the remainder of the warrant application consisted of Hearne’s detailed discussion of the known ways in which law enforcement office assign and track equipment, to explain why the evidence being sought would be relevant to the case.
Open and closed hearing
Following a motion from the media coalition on Wednesday, Judge Kuehnert agreed to recuse himself from the case and allow Judge Carpenter to hear the request for public access to the files Thursday afternoon in Gastonia.
Reporters arriving for the hearing were greeted by Gaston County deputies who announced that the judge wanted no media in the courtroom. After a representative of CPP pointed out that the parties to the case were members of media companies, the deputies rephrased their limitations to prevent cameras and video equipment from entering the courtroom, but did allow reporters to enter.
One TV reporter was forced to move his camera equipment in the court hallway because it might be able to record images through the courtroom windows.
An attorney for the media coalition approached Judge Carpenter at the outset of Thursday’s hearing on this issue and he responded that the limits on access were in place at his discretion.
The judge allowed the initial portion of the hearing to be conducted in open court, with Sheriff Coy Reid and representatives of the media companies among those present.
This portion of the hearing focused initially on whether Dubbs as Coy Reid’s personal attorney had standing to represent him in the case or whether he should be represented by Catawba County Attorney Debra Bechtel.
The judge determined that because the Attorney General’s Office was unwilling to grant the sheriff immunity in the case, and because Bechtel could not continue to represent the sheriff when he leaves office in December, Dubbs should be allowed to represent him.
The judge also examined the question of whether the media coalition should be allowed to intervene in the case in the interest of the public. He ultimately decided to allow this.
He then questioned Dismukes on issues related to the warrant and determined that it likely contained enough information that ought to remain confidential to preserve a vital governmental interest to justify closing the court for the remainder of the hearing while that information was discussed.
At this point members of the media, the sheriff and others in attendance were escorted out of the hearing, which continued for about another hour late Thursday.
When the lawyers emerged they advised their clients that they could not discuss the contents of the hearing due to the closed session, but that the judge had indicated he might rule as soon as Friday, which he ultimately did.
Despite a partial victory for the media coalition’s efforts to gain access to the warrant, Judge Carpenter ordered that the actual document remained sealed and released only redacted copies.
The judge also did not address other issues in the case, including his closure of Thursday’s hearing, the still sealed original sealing order and the gag order.
Attorneys for the media coalition expressed concern about the issues Judge Carpenter’s ruling did not address, but it was unclear Friday whether they would appeal.
The primary election for Catawba County sheriff is set for Tuesday. Jason Reid faces Don Brown in the Republican primary. No other candidates have filed, so the winner will likely become the new sheriff.
According to a report Friday from WSOC, Reid said he does not plan to drop out of the race “unless the good Lord takes” him.