How We Did It



This story was written and reported by the students of JMC 326 at Humboldt State University: Preston Drake-Hillyard, Matt Drange, Carlos Esqueda, J. Daniel Fernadez, Nels Ferre, Brandi Fleeks, Daniel Froloff, Alex Gautreaux, Yelena Kisler, Satoshi Kondo, Molly Lovelady, Mallory Madison, Scott Meyers, Haley Nessler, Desiree Perez, Luke Ramseth, Ahron Sherman, Milo ShumpertAppel, Kaitlin Skeels and Zachary St. George.

Search warrants are law enforcement's keys to our homes. In January, our journalism class set out to learn what it takes for police to break down your door, and what they find when they do. Over three months we examined 298 warrants for more than 300 pieces of property.

A search warrant is a public document unless sealed by a judge. The first warrant we examined, filed Jan. 28, 2010, was 15 pages long and at 50 cents a page, cost $7.50 to copy. A quick calculation told us we couldn't afford to copy every warrant, so we restricted our examination to 2009 and decided to view them in the courthouse. To accommodate the clerks, we agreed to limit our number to two students per visit and request records two days ahead of each visit. We often couldn't get through on the phone, and messages we left didn't always get to the right person. Several times, we arrived at the courthouse and no files awaited us. More than once, we were told to return another day.

To get the files we had to turn over our driver's licenses. There were four chairs in the cramped room and people filed in and out, sometimes pleading with the clerks, sometimes yelling in frustration. The tension of the visitors and the constant noise made it difficult to concentrate.

Once we received files, we scanned through each search warrant, jotted down 10 pieces of data from each and entered them into a database. We mapped the addresses and worked with a team of HSU geography students to further visualize geographic concentrations.

Our 65 interviews ranged from law enforcement and court personnel, to ordinary people in Arcata and Eureka. Most were cooperative but we had trouble getting people named in the warrants to talk to us; one man who had been searched agreed to an interview until his attorney told him not to talk.

Companies that turn over records to police in response to subpoenas -- MySpace, Yahoo, FedEx, and Bank of America, for example -- refused to explain their subpoena compliance policies or connect us with someone who could.

The courts make warrants available by either docket number or name. But we started with neither; we simply wanted every warrant filed. Only after we filed a written request did the clerk's office agree to provide them to us by month. We thought this system worked until we discovered too late -- when we sorted our information by docket numbers -- that many were missing. Because the court is understaffed, some warrants were filed in a way that made it difficult for the clerks to gather them for us to view. In all, we estimate that we viewed three-fifths of all search warrants filed in the Humboldt County Superior Court in 2009. We did not get federal warrants, which are filed in San Francisco, or warrants pulled in other counties for searches here.

To find out how much money the county kept from seizures, we filed a public records request with the County Auditor's office.

We mailed a third request to the District Attorney's Office for case resolutions for each docket number we had. The request was pending as we went to press. After we gave the office 10 days to respond as required by law, it informed us it had never received it and we had to resend it.

We left one thing out of the stories that follow. We found a surprising amount of personal and identifying information about people in each warrant -- people not convicted of any wrongdoing at the time of the filing. That left us uncomfortable. Somehow, the ease with which a group of college students obtained this information didn't feel right.

For more information about the class or the project, contact Asst. Prof. Marcy Burstiner at [email protected]

Add a comment