May 21, 2019

Tenth Circuit: District Court Erred in Manner It Denied Defendants’ Motion to Unseal DEA File

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Pickard on Tuesday, November 5, 2013.

In 2003, a jury convicted Defendants of several drug offenses. At the trial, one of Defendants’ accomplices, Gordon Skinner, testified against them. Skinner acted as a confidential informant for the DEA during when he was involved with Defendants in their criminal conduct. During the trial, the court ordered the Government to turn that file over to the defense. At the same time, the court ordered the DEA file sealed. Eight years later, Defendants filed a motion to have the DEA file on Skinner unsealed so they could use this information in ongoing litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The district court denied Defendants’ motion to unseal the DEA records. Defendants appealed.

The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court erred in the manner in which it denied Defendants’ motion to unseal the file, for three reasons: The court (1) failed to require the United States to articulate a significant interest in continuing to keep the DEA records sealed; (2) did not apply the presumption that judicial records should be open to the public; and (3) did not consider whether unsealing a redacted version of the DEA records would adequately serve the as yet unarticulated government interest in keeping the records sealed. Courts have long recognized a common-law right of access to judicial records.

For these reasons, the court REVERSED the district court’s decision to deny Defendants’ motion to unseal the records and REMANDED for the district court’s further consideration of that motion.

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