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Police perform a potentially illegal raid on a Kansas newspaper because of a DUI investigation

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The Wichita Eagle, Kansas City Star Editorial Boards
The Kansas City Star

Marion city police and the Marion County sheriff’s office did something on Friday that no government agency in America has any right to do.

They shut down a newspaper.

Those agencies raided the offices of the Marion County Record and the home of its owners, Eric Meyer and his mother, Joan. Police seized company-owned and personal computers and cell phones, and photographed personal documents on tables in the Meyer home.

The police action, involving at least four city officers and two sheriff’s deputies, also seized similar equipment and materials from the city’s vice mayor, Ruth Herbel.

Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody (more about him later) reinjured a dislocated finger of Record reporter Deb Gruver — a former Wichita Eagle reporter — when he personally snatched her cellphone from her hand during the raid.

The ransacking and seizures, which include the Record’s file server, directly threaten the ability of the Record to publish. The computer equipment seized contained the stories and ads that were scheduled for next week’s paper.

We could express our outrage at what is happening here.

But we probably couldn’t say it any better than the 98-year-old Joan Meyer, a newspaperwoman since 1953: “These are Hitler tactics and something has to be done.”

It turned out to be one of the last things she ever said. Mrs. Meyer complained of feeling upset and stressed by the invasion of her home when she spoke to us on Friday. Late Saturday, we received the sad news that she had collapsed at home and passed away.

According to a search warrant signed by Marion County Magistrate Laura Viar, the raid is related to an ongoing dispute between the paper and local restaurateur Kari Newell.

Newell has been seeking city approval of an application for a liquor license.

But records sent to the paper and Herbel by a confidential source indicated that she should be ineligible because she does not have a valid driver’s license due to a 2008 drunk-driving conviction and other violations. The paper checked those records through a publicly available website, but opted not to publish a story.

From the warrant, the crux of the police investigation seems to be whether the paper and its reporters committed identity theft and/or unlawful acts concerning computers in confirming Newell’s driving records. An affidavit justifying the warrant is being withheld by County Attorney Joel Ensey, whose brother owns the hotel where Newell has her restaurant.

The ordinary and proper way to pursue such a complaint would have been to subpoena the paper’s communications and records regarding Newell and let the courts decide what, if anything, the Record had to turn over.

Unpublished materials of a news gathering operation are generally protected by state and federal laws and a long line of First Amendment court decisions, but there are exceptions.

There could very well be more sinister motives in play here, involving the police chief himself.

Cody was hired by Marion in April, after taking an early retirement from the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, where he was a captain.

According to Eric Meyer, the Record has been actively investigating the circumstances surrounding Cody’s departure from the KCMO department. Friday’s raid gives Cody and his subordinates access to reporters’ notes and materials from confidential sources who were interviewed as part of the newspaper’s investigation.

Cody’s phone line does not accept voicemail and he did not return a message left for him with the city clerk.

There’s no way to put this toothpaste back in the tube, but there are several actions that need to be taken without delay:

1) Magistrate Viar, or the presiding district judge, should immediately revoke the overly broad search warrant she signed and declare that any evidence seized under it be inadmissible in court.

2) Viar or the district judge should order the immediate return of all equipment and materials seized.

3) Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach should take time out from his hobby of suing over “government overreach” from Washington, and conduct a full investigation of government overreach at home. That must include public disclosure of the circumstances of the raid and motivations behind it.

In the meantime, The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star stand ready to assist the Record in any way we can.

©2023 The Kansas City Star. Visit kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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