Investigations

The Louisville Metro Police Department is using a new search warrant form that provides a designated space for judges to print their name, a change that follows scrutiny of illegible signatures on its warrants.

The agency began using the new forms last week, a month after state court officials and the Kentucky State Police offered law enforcement agencies a new search warrant form with a space for judges to print their name. Without a printed name, it’s often impossible to discern which judge signed a warrant, an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WDRB News found. The news agencies examined more than 230 warrants and found the judge’s signature on 72% was illegible.

Kentucky’s Administrative Office of the Courts issued the updated search warrant form two weeks after that report. The Kentucky State Police followed suit and issued a high-priority notification to law enforcement agencies on October 8 that said the revised form “should be used immediately.”

By October 28, Louisville Metro Police officials still weren’t using the updated form.

But an LMPD spokesperson said they began using it last week. By then, many judges had already begun printing their names underneath their signatures anyway. 

Interim Chief Yvette Gentry made the decision to update the forms, said Dwight Mitchell, an LMPD spokesperson. Asked why the decision was made, Mitchell responded, simply, “to provide a dedicated place for the judge to print their name.”

When the Administrative Office of the Courts updated the forms, spokesperson Leigh Anne Hiatt said the move was rooted in a desire for transparency and accountability.

“This will ensure that the person receiving a warrant can readily identify the judge who signed it,” she said.

LMPD has obtained more than 8,117 search warrants between 2017 and 2019, according to the agency’s annual reports.

The public deserves to know which judges sign those warrants, said Angela Rea, the president of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. 

Being able to readily identify which judge signs a warrant can help dispel — or prove — any concern that police are “forum shopping” when seeking a search warrant, she said.

“That would be something you want to know,” she said. “I cannot think of a compelling argument to not have that transparency.”

Jefferson Circuit Court chief judge Angela McCormick Bisig initially dismissed concerns about illegible signatures, saying in September that judges’ identities could be determined by reviewing court documents and comparing signatures. But she later pushed for the warrant change to ensure judges would print their names next to their signatures.

“No judge can or should avoid accountability for a warrant they sign,” she said.

Advocates and lawmakers are pushing several search warrant reform efforts in Kentucky in advance of the next legislative session, in January. 

The Louisville Metro Council unanimously banned no-knock warrants earlier this year, and state lawmakers are expected to take up similar legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes. Other criminal justice advocates are calling for additional measures to bring transparency to the search warrant process, like recording conversations between judges and officers and mandates requiring officers wear body cameras when executing searches — though police and prosecutors have pushed back.

Simply knowing who is involved in the search warrant process, though, should be a given — from the judge’s name who signs the warrant to the officers who execute it, said Republican Metro Councilman James Peden.

Peden, who serves as vice chair of the council’s public safety committee, has in the past been a vocal critic of LMPD. But he’s happy to hear the agency is using a new form.

“Yay,” he said. “We’re finally on board, doing the right thing.”

 WDRB’s Travis Ragsdale contributed to this report.

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

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