Planned Parenthood Shooting Prompts A Question: Why Are Court Records Sealed?

December 3, 2015
Photo: Night Colorado Spring Planned Parenthood shooting (AP)
A police vehicle, carrying a suspect, leaves after a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colo. A gunman opened fire at the clinic on Friday, authorities said, wounding multiple people. 

Immediately after last week's attack at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, many people wanted to know alleged shooter Robert Lewis Dear's motive. But law enforcement documents, including the arrest and search warrants, that could provide insight into that question were sealed the day of the attack by Judge Stephen Sletta at the request of prosecutors.

What does it mean to seal something?

Sealing part of the court record means only the judge and the court staff can access it, said Colorado's judicial public information officer Robert McCallum. Of course, whoever asked for the document to be sealed would know the content.

Court records can also be suppressed, which often means that the public can't access the document without a court order. 

Whole cases can be suppressed too. If a case is suppressed, records of the case don't show up in the public judicial records, says McCallum. And if someone asks about a case that has been suppressed, the court is empowered to say that the case doesn't exist.

How is a document sealed or suppressed?

One of the parties in the case asks the court to conceal a document in the case, either keeping it from the public eye or from all the other parties in the case. The judge then evaluates the reasons given and approves or disapproves it.

Is there anything that can't be sealed or suppressed?

No. If the judge agrees with the reason for concealing documents or the case, then it will be kept under wraps. 

Why are records sealed?

Prosecutors commonly ask to seal records when law enforcement is still conducting their investigation, says McCallum. If information about a crime is released too early, then it can jeopardize the outcome of prosecution. 

How often does it happen?

Colorado courts don't keep any statistics on how often documents are sealed. McCallum says sealed documents are not uncommon though. 

Attorney Steven Zansberg, who has represented Colorado media outlets including CPR, says that it's common for judges to seal documents in high profile cases. Though he says it's "really uncommon" to have these types of documents in a court file sealed after an arrest or a search has been executed.

Are records sealed in certain types of cases more often?

Sealed records are often part of a criminal case and rarely part of a civil case, says public information officer Robert McCallum. But among different criminal cases, no type of crime is more likely to have sealed documents, says McCallum. Instead, it really depends on the context of each case and what each party wants. 

How long do they stay sealed? 

Usually until someone asks to have the documents unsealed, says McCallum. It doesn't have to be one of the lawyers in the case either; a member of the public can file a motion to unseal the records. If the judge in the case agrees with the rationale for unsealing the document, then the documents become part of the public record.

Why are they unsealed?

"It's an extremely high burden on the party wishing to maintain the sealing," said attorney Steven Zansberg. "The public has a presumptive right to attend judicial proceedings and to inspect records that are filed in our courts."

So unless there is a compelling state interest to justify keeping a record sealed, like a defendant's right to a fair trial, it's hard to maintain forever. In addition to that, the party seeking to justify sealing records must also show that there is "no less restrictive means" to protect the state's interest, says Zansberg.