Investigations

District Court judges in Jefferson County will on Tuesday consider a sweeping set of procedural changes that would strengthen the rules by which search warrants are obtained.

The 17 judges meet monthly to discuss policies and structures of the 30th judicial district, which encompasses Jefferson County. District court handles misdemeanors, juvenile cases, small claims and felony probable cause hearings, among other issues. 

On this month’s meeting agenda is a proposal to effectively overhaul the court’s process for issuing search warrants with the aim to boost transparency. Under the proposed rule change, which was shared with and reviewed by KyCIR, conversations between judges and law enforcement officers seeking a warrant would be recorded;  only specific judges could review a search warrant request on a given day; and a judge who refuses to grant a warrant would be required to file the documents with the Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk.

The measures would be a sharp turn from the court’s current rules, which only require that approved warrants be filed with the clerk’s office. Presently, police can take a warrant request to any judge they wish, and their conversations with judges aren’t recorded.

District Judge Julie Kaelin, who is proposing the rule change, said in an email to the other judges that the proposal would help boost confidence in the judiciary “by showing a willingness to be truly transparent.”

“This is an opportunity for us to lead,” she said. “To show we take the concerns of the community seriously, and to provide useable data for years to come which will ultimately improve the justice system and help educate the electorate.”

The rule change would only apply to District Court judges, who approve a vast majority of search warrants. Circuit Court judges, which handle felony cases, operate under their own set of rules. Any rule change at the local court level would need approval from Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton. 

Minton’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. Jefferson District Court Chief Judge Anne Haynie declined to comment on the proposal.

Search warrants, and the processes by which they are obtained, have come under scrutiny in Louisville after LMPD officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, prompting months of protests. The officers entered Taylor’s apartment with a no-knock search warrant approved by Circuit Judge Mary Shaw. 

One officer, Brett Hankison, was charged with wanton endangerment for firing into a neighboring apartment. The Federal Bureau of Investigations is examining how and why the no-knock warrant was obtained.

The Louisville Metro Council has since banned no-knock search warrants and officers are now required to wear body cameras when executing search warrants. At least two state lawmakers are expected to file legislation that would mandate similar measures statewide.

The Louisville Metro Criminal Justice Commission last month pledged to push lawmakers to support a series of search warrant reforms, including a mandate that conversations between judges and police are recorded. And more recently, state court officials revamped search warrant forms to include a judge’s printed name after a joint investigation by KyCIR and WDRB News found most warrants were signed by judges with illegible signatures.

(Read: Louisville Police Change Warrant Form, Improve Transparency)

Even though the local reform would only affect the process for district judges, KyCIR and WDRB News’ review of more than 200 search warrants found 81 percent were approved by a district court judge. 

Kaelin said she expects pushback from other judges on the proposed rule changes.

But she hopes to eliminate any concern that law enforcement officers are “judge shopping.”

“Whether [judge shopping] exists or not, the perception created by a system where police can choose which judge they want to have review a warrant is problematic,” Kaelin said.

She also wants to create records of how many warrants are rejected, who rejects them and what happens after they are rejected.

“We have no way of knowing if an officer gets a denial from one judge and then goes to another,” she said. “The only we can do that is by having the data available.”

Her proposal to record the conversation between judges and officers suggests communicating via email or requiring officers to record and keep the audio file “in the same manner as any other investigative documentation leading up to issuance of a warrant.”

“Again, the whole point is transparency,” Kaelin said.

The judges will meet virtually at 4p.m. on Tuesday. The meeting is not open to the public, according to Kelsey Doren, the Jefferson District Court Administrator.

Kaelin was the only of 17 district judges to respond to a request for comment.

The proposal highlights issues criminal defense attorneys have been pushing for years, said Karen Faulkner, a Louisville-based criminal defense attorney and first vice president of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“We always want to show that there is no plot of secrecy and anyone can review the process and know that it is fair and that due process is given to every defendant,” she said. 

Heather Gatnarek, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said the proposed rule change could help create critical records of the search warrant process, which in turn would ensure the process is fair.

“The tragedy of Ms. Taylor’s death brought this issue to light and we are grateful to the community leaders who have pushed these reforms forward,” she said. “This additional accountability and transparency is warranted and welcome.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.