TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A central Kansas police chief was not only on shaky legal ground when he ordered the raid in a weekly newspaper, experts said, but it may also have been a criminal violation of civil rights, a former federal prosecutor added admits, saying, “I’d probably let the FBI begin the search.”
Some legal experts believe the Aug. 11 raid on the Marion County Record offices and publisher’s home violated a federal privacy law that protects journalists from searches of their newsrooms. Some believe it violated a Kansas law that makes it more difficult to force reporters and editors to disclose their sources or unpublished material.
Part of the debate centers on Police Chief Gideon Cody van Marion’s reasons for the raid. A warrant suggested that police were looking for evidence that Record staff violated state laws against identity theft and computer crime while verifying information about a local restaurant owner. But the police also seized the computer tower and personal cell phone of a reporter who had been investigating Cody’s background.
The raid brought international attention to the newspaper and the small town of 1900 – thrust into the center of a debate over press freedom. Recent events have exposed the furious divisions over local politics and aggressive newspaper coverage. But it also focused an intense spotlight on Cody in just his third month on the job.
The investigation into whether the paper violated state laws is now being led by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. State Attorney General Kris Kobach has said he does not see the KBI’s role as investigating police conduct, leading some to question whether the federal government would get involved. Spokesmen for the FBI and the US Department of Justice declined to comment.
Stephen McAllister, a U.S. attorney for Kansas during former President Donald Trump’s administration, said the raid opened Cody, the city and others to lawsuits for alleged civil rights violations. And, he added, “We also have some exposure to federal criminal charges.”
“I’d be surprised if they don’t look into this, if they haven’t already been asked by various interest groups to look into it, and I would think they would take it seriously,” said McAllister, a law professor at the University of Kansas. who also served as the state’s attorney general, federal officials said.
Cody did not respond to an email asking for comment on Friday because he has not responded to other emails. But he later defended the raid in a Facebook post, saying the federal law protecting journalists from editorial searches makes an exception specifically for “when there is reason to believe that the journalist is participating in the underlying misconduct.”
Police seized computers, personal cell phones and a router from the newspaper. All items were released on Wednesday to a computer forensic audit company hired by the newspaper’s lawyer after the local prosecutor concluded that the evidence did not warrant their seizure. The company investigates whether files have been opened or copied.
The Record is known for its aggressive coverage of local politics and its community about 100 miles southwest of Kansas City, Missouri. It received an outpouring of support from other news organizations and media groups after the raid, and editor and publisher Eric Meyer said on Friday it had gained an additional 4,000 subscribers, double its normal circulation.
But the raids did have some backers in town. Jared Smith blames the newspaper coverage for the demise of his wife’s spa business and thinks the paper is too negative.
“I’d like to see the newspaper go down,” he said.
And Kari Newell, whose claims that the paper violates her privacy have been cited as reasons for the raid, said of the paper, “They twist and distort — misquote people in our community — all the time.”
Meyer dismisses criticism of his newspaper’s reporting, saying critics are angry because it is trying to hold local officials accountable. And he blames the stress of the raid on the August 12 death of his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, the paper’s co-owner.
Meyer said that after the mayor offered Cody the job of police chief in late April, the paper received anonymous tips about “a variety of stories” about why Cody gave up a job in Kansas City, paying $115,848 a year to get a job. who paid $60,000, according to a sister magazine. Meyer said the paper was unable to satisfactorily verify the tips.
Days before Cody was sworn in as chief on May 30, Meyer said he asked Cody directly about the tips he received and Cody told him, “If you print that, I’ll sue you.”
“We get confidential stuff from people all the time and we monitor them,” says Doug Anstaett, a retired executive director of the Kansas Press Association. “And sometimes we know they’re stupid, but most of the time we get a tip and we go investigate. And that’s exactly what they do.”
Anstaett said he believes the state shield law for journalists, enacted in 2010 by the Republican-controlled legislature, should have protected the paper. It allows law enforcement agencies to request subpoenas to obtain confidential information from news organizations, but requires them to demonstrate that they have a compelling interest and cannot obtain it through any other means.
Former Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who helped write the shield bill as a senator, said the law is not considering using law enforcement with a search warrant to get information without going to court to file a lawsuit. to get a summons. Still, he said, “The spirit of the law is that it should be widely applied.”
Jeffrey Jackson, interim dean of the law school at Washburn University in Topeka, said he recently completed a constitutional law summer course on press freedoms and federal privacy law, and told his students — before the Marion raid — that a police investigation of a newspaper “really never happens.”
Jackson said whether the raid violated the state’s shield law would depend on Cody’s motives, whether he was trying to identify sources. But even if Cody was looking for evidence of a crime committed by newspaper employees, Jackson thinks he likely violated federal privacy law because, like state law, it is considering subpoenaing a law enforcement agency.
“Either they broke the shield law, or they probably broke federal law,” Jackson said. “Anyway, it’s a mess.”
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.
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