A journalist’s seemingly routine public records search sparked unprecedented law enforcement raids on a Kansas newspaper office and the publisher's home, court papers revealed.
The search of the Marion County Record's offices was based on a police chief's stated belief that one its reporters committed identify theft by accessing the driver records of a restaurant owner, according to court documents released by the paper's attorney, Bernie Rhodes.
Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody wrote in affidavits supporting raids on the paper’s newsroom, its publisher Eric Meyer’s home and City Council member Ruth Herbel’s residence, "Downloading the document involved either impersonating the victim or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought."
A day after the Aug. 11 raid, Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, Record co-owner Joan Meyer, died, and he blamed her death on stress caused by the police incursion.
The paper has said that the raid was unjustified and that its reporter Phyllis Zorn simply found restaurant owner Kari Newell's driver's record by routinely using the state Revenue Department's online search engine.
The search engine makes any motorist's history available to anyone by simply providing the search target's first and last names, date of birth and driver's license number.
"The motor vehicle driver's checker is public-facing and free-use," Revenue Department spokesperson Zach Denney said Monday. "If you have my [identifying] information, you can pull it [motor records] out."
The newspaper said it had received a tip that Newel was convicted of a DUI in 2008 and wanted to know whether that spot on her driving record could preclude her from having a liquor license. The paper even asked police about the unsolicited information — a claim confirmed by Cody's affidavits.
Herbel, who was also a target of a raid, received the same unsolicited information about Newell’s DUI.
The raid infuriated press freedom watchdogs, who claimed that it was a blatant violation of constitutional rights. And last week, Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey said police had “insufficient evidence” to justify their raids and asked for seized property to be returned.
There's no conceivable way the paper could be guilty of identity theft by accessing a public database, said Washburn University Law School Dean Jeffrey Jackson, an expert in constitutional law.
And even if the paper committed wrongdoing to get Newell's date of birth and driver's license number, police were wrong to use their most aggressive and intrusive tool, Jackson said.
"Just having that information is not an issue," Jackson said Monday. "And even if they [the newspaper], for some reason, had that information [by illegal means], the way to get at that information would be by subpoena."
The newspaper, even after it confirmed Newell's DUI through driving records, did not initially reveal it.
The DUI was reported by the newspaper only when Newell revealed it at a City Council meeting as she publicly accused the newspaper of having used illegal means to get the information.
"My client did not break the law in using a public website and typing in information she had received," Rhodes said in statement Monday. "There is no theory that receiving information could be a criminal act. That is what the Supreme Court said when it ruled that the New York Times and the Washington Post could publish the Pentagon Papers."
Ensey, the county attorney, and Cody could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.