Kansas newspaper's lawyer says police didn't follow warrant in last month's newsroom search

Police officers who raided a small Kansas newspaper's offices last month didn't follow the requirements of the search warrant to only seize computers that had been directly involved in suspected identity theft, according to the newspaper's lawyer.

Authorities released data to the newspaper last week showing police spent 1 hour and 20 minutes fruitlessly searching one computer for signs it was used to look up the driving record of a local restaurant owner and the status of her driver's license on the Kansas Department of Revenue's site. No evidence was found. But the Marion County Record 's attorney Bernie Rhodes said Tuesday that police seized that computer and then took all the other computers in the newsroom along with two reporters' cell phones without checking to see if any of those devices were involved.

“So it’s a complete and total sham, which is, in my view, simply more evidence that this so-called search was just a pretense to intimidate the newspaper,” Rhodes said.

The Record's publisher, Eric Meyer, whose home was also searched on Aug. 11 along with the home of a city council member, has said he thinks the the search was motivated by the newspaper's investigation of Police Chief Gideon Cody's background with the Kansas City Police Department before he was hired in Marion earlier this year.

Cody didn't respond to email questions from The Associated Press on Tuesday. He defended the search initially, but hasn't said much publicly since the Kansas Bureau of Investigation took over the case. He said in affidavits used to obtain the search warrants that he had probable cause to believe the newspaper and City Council member Ruth Herbel, whose home was also raided, had violated state laws against identity theft or computer crimes.

Police had said in court documents that investigators believed the newspaper may have acted illegally to obtain personal information about a local restaurant owner. But a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Revenue has said the search a reporter did after they received some information from a tipster was legal.

The KBI hasn't offered updates on its investigation or when it might turn over its findings to the local prosecutor in the central Kansas town of about 1,900 people.

Video of the raid on the home of publisher Eric Meyer shows how distraught his 98-year-old mother became as officers searched through their belongings. Meyer said he believes that stress contributed to the death of his mother, Joan Meyer, a day later.

The raids have been sharply criticized nationally because of the implications for the press protections outlined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But now Rhodes said he believes there were also violations of the Fourth Amendment's restrictions on unreasonable searches.

In the search warrant, the judge directed police to “conduct a preview search of all located digital communications devices and digital storage media to exclude from seizure those which have not been involved in the identity theft.”

Rhodes said the data reviewed by his forensic expert shows that didn't happen. Rhodes is still gathering evidence for the lawsuit he plans to file on the newspaper's behalf, but one of the Record's reporters already filed her own lawsuit against police.

Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey didn't immediately respond to questions Tuesday about the search warrants. But a few days after the raids, he said, there wasn't enough evidence to justify the searches so he ordered authorities to return everything they seized.

Legal experts believe the raid on the newspaper violated a federal privacy law or a state law shielding journalists from having to identify sources or turn over unpublished material to law enforcement.

The City Council was holding another meeting Tuesday afternoon, but didn't plan to discuss the raids at all other than to hear public comments about it. Mayor David Mayfield the city's attorney advised him not to talk about the KBI's criminal investigation.

“When the investigation is completed by them, the council will then decide if any action needs to be taken,” Mayfield said in a text message to The Associated Press.

Mayfield said he believes that if there was anything wrong with the searches then the judge should have never approved the warrants, but once they were approved he believes police acted properly.

“It’s my understanding that the police served a valid search warrant that was issued,” he said.

But Mayfield said he really doesn't know everything that happened because when Cody told him he was investigating a City Council member “I told him I did not want to know any details.”