On Friday, police officers in Kansas staged an unprecedented, and potentially illegal, raid on a Kansas newspaper, seizing computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the Marion County Record office and reporters amid a dispute with a local businesswoman.
The raid even extended to the publisher’s home.
One reporter was injured when an officer snatched her cellphone out of her hand.
Eric Meyer, the owner and publisher of the paper, said that the city’s entire police force, consisting of five police officers, and two sheriff’s deputies took “everything we have” in the raid, according to the Kansas Reflector.
Meyer said the police took action because a confidential source leaked sensitive information about a local restaurant owner. He said the message to the newspaper was clear: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”
The raid came following news reports about Kari Newell, a Marion restaurant owner who kicked reporters out of a meeting last week with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner. The reports included revelations about her apparent lack of a driver’s license and a conviction for drunk driving.
Meyer spent 20 years at the Milwaukee Journal and 26 years teaching journalism at the University of Illinois but in all his years of experience, he had never heard of the police raiding a newspaper.
“It’s going to have a chilling effect on us even tackling issues,” Meyer said, as well as “a chilling effect on people giving us information.”
The search warrant was signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar and may violate a federal law, 42 U.S. Code § 2000aa, which grants protection against the search and seizure of materials from journalists. The law requires that those materials must be subpoenaed.
Last week, Meyer reported that Newell had kicked newspaper staff out of a public forum with LaTurner, leading to Newell hitting back on her personal Facebook page.
It wasn’t long after that the newspaper was contacted by a confidential source, providing evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunk driving but continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license. Her criminal record could jeopardize her efforts to obtain a liquor license for her catering business.
A reporter with the Marion Record was able to verify the information by using a state website, but Meyer was concerned that the source was relaying information from Newell’s husband, who had filed for divorce somewhat recently.
In the end, Meyer did not publish a story about the arrest, saying, “we thought we were being set up.” He alerted police to the situation, who notified Newell.
In turn, Newell complained at a city council meeting that the newspaper had illegally obtained and disseminated sensitive documents, which was a fabrication. The public comments prompted the newspaper to set the record straight in a Thursday story.
However, the very next morning, police appeared on the doorsteps of Meyer’s home and the newspaper’s offices, presenting a search warrant alleging identity theft and unlawful use of a computer.
The warrant identified two pages worth of items that law enforcement officers were allowed to seize, including computer software and hardware, digital communications, cellular networks, servers and hard drives, items with passwords, utility records and all documents and records pertaining to Newell.
The warrant specifically targeted ownership of computers capable of being used to “participate in the identity theft of Kari Newell.”
Newell, writing Friday under a changed name on her personal Facebook account, admitted that she “foolishly” received a DUI in 2008 and “knowingly operated a vehicle without a license out of necessity.”
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