A judge’s gag order and a sealed hearing in a politically charged Catawba County case face a new legal challenge after a news media coalition filed a notice of appeal on Monday.
Superior Court Judge Daniel Kuehnert sealed an April 19 search warrant from the State Bureau of Investigation’s probe of Jason Reid, who was then running for sheriff in the hope of replacing his father, Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid. The judge then sealed records of the proceedings in which he sealed the warrant and issued a gag order for discussion of that hearing.
The warrant provided for an early morning SBI raid at a Sheriff’s Office facility in Newton that was in theory secret and used as part of an undercover narcotics operation in which Reid previously worked. A former girlfriend in Lincoln County found a tracking device, apparently from the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office, and accused Jason Reid of placing it there, then sending harassing messages to stalk her last summer.
The coalition of news media organizations petitioned the courts May 2 to lift the gag order and unseal both the warrant and the record of the proceedings in which it was sealed. After Judge Kuehnert recused himself, Judge Jeff Carpenter, who had originally signed the warrant, agreed to hear the case in Gaston County on May 4.
Ruling on May 5, Carpenter allowed the release of a heavily redacted transcript of the warrant. But he did not lift the gag order or unseal records of the original court proceedings.
This left unresolved the question of who had wanted the warrant sealed and why, as well as how they had made their case to Judge Kuehnert. In addition, the redactions to the warrant left substantial passages unclear, while raising questions about whether much of the blocked material should have been made public.
The notice of appeal filed this week does not formally identify the portions of Judge Carpenter’s ruling that the coalition is challenging, though clearly the members were not unhappy that at least part of the sealed warrant could be reviewed and described in news reports ahead of the May primary. The appeal will likely focus on the items in their original petition, the gag order, sealed proceedings, as well as the necessity and nature of the warrant redactions.
Despite the limited information from the warrant that became public, it included substantial information about the SBI’s gathering of evidence of alleged wrongdoing by Jason Reid, which the SBI submitted to Judge Carpenter in the probable cause portion of the warrant application.
Among other revelations, the warrant showed the SBI’s claim that it has already traced harassing messages to accounts belonging to Jason Reid through records from cellphone companies. The warrant application showed that the SBI was searching for evidence about the trackers that would indicate Reid had not just committed misdemeanors in stalking his ex-girlfriend but had used a departmental tracker and related software for illegal purposes.
Reid lost the Catawba County Republican primary for sheriff on May 8 by a roughly 2-to-1 majority. However, he remains under SBI investigation.
The media coalition that brought the original challenge to the warrant seal and is now appealing include Carolina Public Press, The Associated Press, The Charlotte Observer, The Hickory Daily Record, WBTV and WSOC-TV.
It’s unclear who, if anyone, would argue in opposition. Although the North Carolina Department of Justice had sought to have several previous warrants in the SBI’s probe of Reid sealed, it did not seek to seal the warrant for the Sheriff’s Office property search. The district attorneys in both Lincoln and Catawba counties also denied seeking the seal.
The coalition also hopes that a successful appeal would strengthen existing precedents in favor of public access to warrants, proceedings and other court records.
In a related development, Judge Carpenter unsealed the transcript from part of the May 4 hearing on the coalition’s original petition. Carpenter closed part of the session out of concern that confidential information about Sheriff’s Office procedures and policies could be discussed.
He released a transcript of that portion of the proceedings on Monday. This also freed the attorneys in the case to discuss the hearing in more detail with their clients, which the judge’s order had previously barred them from doing.