Was the Police Search and Seizure of a Marion County Newspaper Constitutional?
On August 11, 2023, Marion County police officers in Kansas searched the newspaper office of the Marion County Record and searched the home of Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s owner. The officers conducted the search pursuant to a search warrant signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar.
One week before the search, the newspaper’s staff was kicked out by Kari Newell from his Marion restaurant during a public meet and greet with Congressman Jake LaTurner. A confidential informant contacted the newspaper and provided evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continuing to use her vehicle without a driver’s license.
However, the Marion County Record never ran the story. Instead, Meyer alerted police to the information. The police notified Newell, who then complained to the city council that the newspaper had illegally obtained and disseminated sensitive documents. Newell claimed the newspaper was attempting to slander her name. Newell’s public comments drew the newspaper to issue a story stating their own version of events.
The next day though, five officers showed up to search Meyer’s home and newspaper office. They seized computers, hard drives, utility records, and other documents and equipment pursuant to a search warrant alleging identity theft and unlawful use of a computer. Meyers’ mother passed away the next day after the search, which Meyers attributes to the stress of dealing with the search.
On August 16, 2023, the local prosecutor announced it would withdraw the search warrant and return the seized items. Meyers reports that the Marion County Record has 2000 new subscriptions after news of the search broke.
Was the Search Warrant Valid?
A search warrant is a court order signed by a judge that allows law enforcement to search a specific place for specific objects for a criminal investigation. Such locations may include a suspect’s home or place of work. To obtain a search warrant, police must convince a judge that they have probable cause to conduct such a search.
Probable cause is established when there is a reasonable basis that a crime has occurred. If specific facts and evidence obtained thus far show that more evidence of a crime may exist at a specific location, a judge can sign a warrant for law enforcement to search the area. Probable cause can be established in several ways, including the officer’s own observations, such as sights, sounds, and smells, circumstantial evidence, and information from informants, witnesses, and victims, especially statements regarding a suspect’s activity.
The Marion County Record alleges that the warrant was not obtained for a proper purpose, but as revenge for investigating Gideon Cody, the chief of police of Marion County Police, the department that executed the search. Cody, the officer who oversaw the search into Marion County Record’s officers, had previously threatened to sue the newspaper if they published the story about his prior conduct. In June 2023, Gideon Cody was a captain in the Kansas City Police Department, but had been demoted for making sexist remarks to co-workers. The newspaper had the identities and contact information of the witnesses against Cody, but hadn’t published the story yet.
Newell’s allegation that the Marion County Record had illegally obtained her criminal record had never made any sense. Criminal records are generally available to the public, so there was no need for Meyers or any of his staff to hack her computer to find out she had prior drunk driving charges. Moreover, Meyers had contacted the police about the information he received instead of publishing about. It is impossible that the newspaper could have slandered Newell if the story never even made it to print.
No, Newell’s allegations look like a cover-up for Chief Cody’s desire to search the Marion County Record for information about their story about him. Search warrants are often obtained without the attorney for the suspect involved, but here an attorney for the newspaper at the hearing for a search warrant would have saved everyone from stress and embarrassment.
Do I Need an Attorney for a Criminal Law Issue?
Illegal searches can affect a criminal case significantly. If you’re facing any such issues, a qualified criminal defense attorney will be able to determine whether the police followed the proper procedure in searching.