In re Cooper, 200 N.C. App. 180 (Oct. 6, 2009)

Affirming the trial court’s order denying the plaintiffs’ motion to unseal three returned search warrants and related papers. Holding that although returned search warrants are public records, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by sealing the documents where the release of information would undermine the ongoing investigation, and that sealing for a limited time period was necessary to ensure the interests of maintaining the State’s right to prosecute a defendant, protecting a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and preserving the integrity of an investigation. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the orders violated North Carolina common law on the public’s right of access to court records and proceedings, concluding that the public records law had supplanted any common law right and that even if the common law right existed no abuse of discretion occurred. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ First Amendment argument, concluding that because the documents were not historically open to the press and public, the plaintiffs did not have a qualified First Amendment right to access. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the sealing orders violated the open courts provision of Article I, § 18 of the State Constitution. Although the court recognized a qualified right of access to the documents under the open courts provision, it found that right was outweighed by compelling governmental interests. Finally, the court concluded that the trial court’s findings were sufficiently specific, that any alternatives were not feasible, and that by limiting the sealing orders to 30 days the trial court used the least restrictive means of keeping the information confidential.