The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled Thursday that affidavits from an investigation into child pornography allegations against billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford must be unsealed.
In 2019, South Dakota investigators searched his email account as well as his cellular and internet service providers for evidence of him containing child pornography after his accounts were flagged by a technology firm.
Sanford, the state’s wealthiest man, was not charged after the South Dakota attorney general’s office said the investigation into the allegations found no prosecutable offenses within the state’s jurisdiction.
Sanford sought a stay on the affidavits used to issue search warrants in the case. But the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and ProPublica argued in court that the documents should be made public.
After the decision not to file charges, Judge James Power ordered in June 2022 that South Dakota law requires opening affidavits. They were kept sealed while Sanford’s attorneys appealed, sending the case to the state Supreme Court.
Sanford argued that releasing the documents could affect his privacy and reputation.
Initially, the court documents only referred to “a implicated person”, causing the Argus Leader and ProPublica to go to court to gain access to the records.
The search warrant first identified Sanford by name in 2021, but the affidavits were sealed.
In Thursday’s unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court found that the lower court had fully considered all of the legal and constitutional grounds claimed by Sanford.
“The Court’s approach to revision fell soundly within its discretion, and the Court appropriately exercised its discretion to decide whether[there were]sufficient grounds for restricting access” to the affidavit.
Sanford has donated billions to hospitals, universities and charities, and the Sanford Health System is named after him. He made his fortune as the founder of First Premier Bank in South Dakota, known for issuing high-interest credit cards to people with bad credit.
His attorney, Stacey Hague, argued that Sanford should be able to participate in inspecting and editing the affidavits before the circuit court opens the affidavits, in order to avoid any disclosure of trade secrets.
Hegde declined to comment on the verdict on Thursday and would not say whether an appeal was planned.
Shelly Conlon, director of news for the Argus Leader, hailed the court’s decision.
Conlon said, “Taking on an influential Goliath in our community and winning today is a strong victory for the public’s right to know.” “The law is clear, and the Court’s decision only confirms the accountability and role of journalism in understanding government, public figure and law enforcement decisions.”
Argus Leader attorney John Arneson said the decision came just two weeks after attorneys argued the case before the state Supreme Court.
“Obviously, I agree with the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court,” he said. “The argument was sound and well expressed.”
The court’s decision also noted that state attorneys had argued that releasing an affidavit after the investigation was complete was consistent with society’s interests in allowing law enforcement and the judiciary to operate publicly, even if no charges were filed. have been done
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