SMITHFIELD — The State Bureau of Investigation has seized dozens of files on dismissed impaired driving cases to examine for evidence of tampering, a special prosecutor with the state Attorney General's Office told a judge Tuesday.
Pat Murphy, special deputy attorney general, indicated that agents at the State Bureau of Investigation laboratory may need to search the documents for signs of forgery and fingerprints in determining whether the records were improperly dismissed.
This spring, Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle asked the SBI to investigate an allegation that impaired driving cases in Johnston County were improperly dismissed. Former Assistant District Attorney Cindy Jaeger, who left her post last September, has been interviewed by the SBI and is cooperating, her attorney said last month.
Also last month, Portia Snead, a Johnston County deputy clerk of court, was suspended as SBI agents examined cases that could have come through her hands as a clerk assigned to District Court matters.
The SBI has been reviewing hundreds of DWI cases. Last month, Murphy asked a judge to seal the public records, a half-hour before a News & Observer reporter was scheduled to review them.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, who helped write the public records law and is widely regarded as a proponent of open government, justified the sealing Tuesday, saying that the records themselves held the clues of the wrongdoing.
When asked why a reporter couldn't have inspected copies while his agents examined the originals for forensic evidence, Cooper said, "The prosecutors and the SBI agents did not want to provide a road map of our investigation to potential targets."
At a hearing Tuesday, Superior Court Judge James Ammons agreed to allow Murphy's staff to return copies of the records before the seal is to lapse next month. The documents will be restored to cabinets overnight, filed among thousands of other traffic and misdemeanor cases.
The News & Observer has been at odds with Cooper over his staff's actions to keep secret the court documents. Attorneys for The N&O appealed to Cooper to restore the records and honor the spirit of the public records law he helped draft as a legislator.
According to the public records law, "the use of a public record in connection with the criminal investigation or the gathering of criminal intelligence shall not affect its status as a public record."
On Tuesday, Cooper defended his staff's actions, saying that the sealing of these records was necessary because it involved serious allegations of corruption in the court system. He said it was a rare move, one the law supports.
Attorneys for The N&O contend that the move was extraordinary and that the law is clear that public records are still public even if they become integral to a criminal investigation.
Judge Ammons is considering a request from The News & Observer to make public the motion he heard to allow the documents to be sealed in the first place. The motion contains a list of the files the SBI has sealed over the past month.
"The public needs to understand what's gone on here for the last 30 days," said Hugh Stevens, an attorney for The N&O. "I don't believe there's anything in them that will surprise anyone who has tampered with the records or perverted the criminal justice system."
Murphy argued that turning over a list of every case they have inspected would alert witnesses they may still wish to interview and allow them time to change their story.
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