MARION, Kan. (AP) — The first online search of a state website that led a central Kansas police chief Raid on a local weekly newspaper is legal, a spokesman for the agency that runs the site said Monday, when a newly released video showed the publisher’s 98-year-old mother protesting a search of her home.
The raids on the Marion County Record and publisher’s home came earlier this month after a local restaurant owner accused the newspaper of illegally accessing information about them. A prosecutor later said there was insufficient evidence to justify the raids and some of the confiscated computers and cellphones had been returned.
But a video released by the newspaper on Monday shows just how troubling the raid was for publisher Eric Meyer’s mother. The woman died the next day.
“Get out of my house…I don’t want you in my house!” Joan Meyer yelled at the six officers who were in the home she shared with her son. The surveillance video shows Meyer approaching the officers with a walker, slippers and a long dressing gown, insulting them and wanting to know what they are doing.
She yells, “Don’t touch that stuff!”
The raid on Record put it and its hometown of about 1,900 at the center of a debate about it press freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the Kansas Bill of Rights. It also uncovered dissent in the city over local politics and the newspaper’s coverage of the community, and put an intense spotlight on Police Chief Gideon Cody, who led the Aug. 11 raids, months after the newspaper asked questions about his background.
“As for Chief Cody, he can take his high horse that he brought to this community and go out of town,” Darvin Markley, a Marion resident, said during a city council meeting Monday afternoon. “The man has to go. He needs to be fired.”
Cody did not attend Monday’s meeting and did not respond to email and cellphone messages requesting replies to those comments. He said clean affidavits used to obtain the warrants, which show he likely had reason to believe that the newspaper and a city council member whose home was also searched had violated state identity theft or computer crime statutes.
Both City Council member Ruth Herbel and the newspaper said they were given an unsolicited copy of a document on the status of the restaurant owner’s license. The document included the restaurant’s license number and their date of birth, which are required to check a person’s driver’s license status online and gain access to a more complete driver’s license. The police chief claims they broke state law to do so, while the newspaper and Herbel’s attorneys say they didn’t.
Herbel, the city’s deputy mayor, chaired Monday’s city council meeting, the first since the raids. It took less than an hour, and Herbel announced that council members would not discuss the raids – something that was already on the agenda in a statement written in capital letters in red and followed by 47 exclamation marks. She said the council would consider the raids at a future meeting.
While Herbel said after the meeting that she agreed that Cody should resign, other city council members declined to comment. Mike Powers, a retired district judge who is the only candidate for mayor this fall, said it was premature to render a verdict.
The meeting came after Kansas Department of Revenue spokesman Zack Denney said it was legal to access the driver’s license database online to verify the status of an individual’s driver’s license using independently obtained information. The department’s vehicle division issues licenses.
“The website is open to the public and can be used by anyone,” he said.
On the Treasury Department’s website, a searcher can see if a person holds a valid driver’s license and view a list of documents related to that person’s license.
Searchers can go further: the site allows them to download documents or buy a copy of a driving report for $16.70. But you will also need someone’s driver’s license number and date of birth, and will be asked to provide an address and phone number.
The affidavit pertaining to the search of the newspaper’s offices said that when requesting another person’s driver’s license online, it lists 13 circumstances under which it is legal to obtain one. This includes an individual getting their own records or a company to verify personal information to help collect a debt.
The last point states, “I will use the requested information in a manner expressly authorized by Kansas law relating to the operation of a motor vehicle or public safety.”
Meyer, the newspaper’s editor, said Monday that reporter Phyllis Zorn did not download or purchase any documents at the scene. He said the newspaper plans to file a lawsuit over the raid on their offices and his home.
“If they thought they were going to intimidate us, they were wrong,” said Meyer, who blames the stress of the raid on his mother’s death.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation continues to investigate the newspaper’s actions. The KBI reports to Republican Attorney General Kris Kobach, while the Treasury Department reports to the authority of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
The police confiscated computers, personal mobile phones and a router from the newspaper and the publisher’s house, as well as a laptop and an iPhone from Herbel.
As of Monday, the newspaper’s employees’ mobile phones, two reporters’ computer towers and the newspaper’s main server were back in their offices while the newspaper awaited the return of four computers, two removable hard drives and a router. These items remained with a computer forensics firm hired by the newspaper’s attorney, as did Herbel’s laptop and iPhone.
The accounting firm checked the equipment for signs that materials had been accessed or copied. Meyer said the newspaper understands that police began duplicating a computer’s hard drive at the newspaper’s offices, but stopped and confiscated the equipment when it proved too slow.
legal experts believe The police raid on the newspaper violated a federal privacy law or a state law barring journalists from identifying sources or disclosing unpublished material to law enforcement.
Meyer has noted that among the items seized were a computer tower and the personal cellphone of a reporter who was not involved in the dispute with the local restaurant owner – but who previously investigated why Cody lost a police captain’s job in Kansas City, Missouri, in April , Marion had given up to become police chief.
The newspaper is known for its aggressive reporting of its community amid rolling hills that were once part of a vast sea of tall prairie grass. Some residents of the city consider the newspaper to be too critical, but Meyer rejects this.
“I know it’s a well-run newspaper,” Powers said. “If you read the editorials, every week you’ll find a lecture about how terrible we are.”
Powers and Markley had a lively discussion of local politics in the hallway before the meeting and again when the City Council held a brief closed session to speak with the city’s attorney on an issue unrelated to the raids in front of the meeting room.
“The world is watching Marion,” Markley told the city council. “There must be responsibility for those involved.”
Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth, in Mission, Kansas, and Jim Salter, in O’Fallon, Missouri, contributed to this report.
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