Change to warrant review system is not what is seems, former judge explains

LMPD officers have been told the changes were to take place immediately.
Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 2:28 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 23, 2023 at 2:31 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Circuit Court judges in Jefferson County have changed the way law enforcement will obtain their signatures on search warrants.

In a March 17 memo to Louisville Metro Police Department officers obtained by WAVE News Troubleshooters, the department’s Interim chief tells officers the changes were to take place immediately.

Officers across the county, not just from LMPD, must now go directly to the Circuit Court Administrator’s Office which will select a judge to review the warrant request before signing off during normal business hours.

The county’s procedures for getting warrants approved by a judge has been under public scrutiny since the death of Breonna Taylor, with allegations that officers could choose the judge they wanted to review their request.

However, former Jefferson County Chief Circuit Judge Charles Cunningham says if the public would take time to learn how the system actually works, they would have a more objective understanding.

For example, Cunningham explained it would be foolish for officers to go to judges who are not thorough or “sign off on anything.” Doing so, could compromise the officer’s case if a mistake or issue with the warrant arises. That case could also be dismissed altogether.

“It would not do any good to go to a friendly judge,” Cunningham said.

In his experience on the bench, officers preferred judges that heavily scrutinize warrants before signing off.

“‘We are coming to you because other judges don’t read the warrants’ they would say,” Cunningham recalled.

Statistical reports indicate a handful of judges signed off on the majority of the warrants. However, Cunningham and two other local judges explained that is because those were the judges that were in the actual courthouse at the time or the ones who make time to review them.

One of those two other Jefferson County judges speaking on background told WAVE News Troubleshooters that the media headlines that officers cherry-pick judges simply to get a rushed warrant signed is wrong. That judge also echoed Cunningham’s explanation of the process. They added the true problem lies within neither the public nor the media understanding how the warrant process really works.

“The reality is that police officers aren’t ‘cherry picking’ judges,” the judge said. “This policy appears to be intended to address the perception… actually the misperception… that they are. That matters because perception matters.”

“In all likelihood the policy won’t change the reality,” he continued. “In every workplace in the world 20% of the people do 80% of the work.”

The recent change, in that judge’s opinion is more about making the public feel good about the system. Furthermore, they explained, the Court Administrator’s Office is again to go to the same judges who make themselves available for warrant reviews.

A third Jefferson County judge speaking on anonymity said some judges are neglecting their duties on the bench by refusing to review and put their names on warrants altogether.

The LMPD memo to officers regarding the change references a conversation between Chief Circuit Court Judge Mitch Perry and Interim Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel.

“It was nice to talk to you yesterday morning,” Perry wrote in a letter to the chief. “The Circuit Term looks forward to working with you to implement this policy.”

We reached out to LMPD who referred us to the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office.

The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office provided the following statement on Thursday afternoon.

“My belief is the new protocol will insure not only transparency, but that the workload is distributed evenly. In addition to tracking which judge approves a warrant, I also hope the process will track when a judge rejects the request and what judges are available to review the warrants.”

This story will be updated.