PACER Blunder Causes Legal Drama for LA Times, and Oh Yeah, Maybe DEATH

By William Vogeler, Esq. on July 18, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Newspapers -- the bastions of the First Amendment -- are supposed to be free to publish the truth, right?

But what if a news story will get somebody killed -- like a narcotics detective who cut a deal after being caught working with the Mexican Mafia? That's what a judge was thinking when he ordered the Los Angeles Times to delete details of a story.

Judge John Walter reversed himself, however, when he discovered the court system accidentally released a sealed record. Sorry, detective, our bad.

Mexican Mafia

John Saro Balian, who should be in witness protection by now, pleaded guilty to charges that he lied to federal investigators about his links to organized crtime. He had tipped off the Mexican Mafia about a gang sweep and helped a prime suspect escape.

What, you didn't see that story? It made all the papers after the Times got the scoop from PACER, the public access point for the federal court's electronic records.

In the plea deal, Balian agreed to cooperate with authorities. That made the judge nervous, and he granted Balian's ex parte request to depublish the details.

But after discovering the PACER problem, the judge lifted his order. After all, the internet is forever and the First Amendment is a close second.

First Amendment

The Times had removed the sealed information from its story, but appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was ready to file an amicus brief, but Walker reconsidered his ruling at a hearing before it got that far.

"I'm concerned about somebody's life, and if I err, I'm going to err on the side of protecting this defendant," Walter said but added: "I've always been a strong proponent of the First Amendment and believe in public access to this courtroom."

Craig Missakian, representing the detective, said the Times was irresponsible. But the judge accepted the newspaper's argument that the First Amendment allows reporters to publish lawfully obtained information.

The Times republished the original story about the detective on its website. Balian, of course, was unavailable for comment.

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