TOPEKA (KSNT) – A pair of Democratic state lawmakers want to see changes in the way search warrants are issued. This comes after the controversial raid of a Kansas newspaper and the home of its publisher.
On Tuesday, State Representatives Vic Miller, of Topeka, and Jason Probst, of Hutchinson, announced plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit magistrate judges from authorizing search warrants.
This is in a response to the Aug. 11 raid on the Marion County Record. Officers with the Marion County Police Department executed a search warrant, signed by a magistrate judge, and seized items from the newspaper and the home of its publisher, Eric Meyer, and his 98-year-old mother Joan Meyer, the paper’s co-owner. Meyer blamed the death of his mother the next day on the stress the home raid caused her.
Court records show Marion police executed the raid as part of its investigation into allegations of identity theft and other computer crimes stemming from a conflict between the newspaper and a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell.
Days after the raid, an attorney for the newspaper said the Marion County Attorney had withdrawn the search warrant, and the items seized had been released. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said the “investigation remains open, however, we have determined in collaboration with the Marion County Attorney, that the investigation will proceed independently, and without review or examination of any of the evidence seized on Friday, Aug. 11.”
At Tuesday’s briefing, Millers said after hearing what happened at the Marion County Record, his first reaction was, “how can that happen?” He said his second reaction was to find out what they could do as lawmakers to prevent it from happening again.
“I’m trying to stir the pot,” Miller said. “What happened in Marion County is frightening. We can’t lose sight of the consequences here.”
Miller said he and Probst have asked the Office of Revisor of Statutes to draft a bill that they can prefile that would require any search warrant be signed by a district judge, and no longer allow magistrate judges that authority.
In Kansas, district court judges must be lawyers. Some counties have magistrate judges who may or may not be lawyers, and their jurisdiction is limited. Miller and Probst believe district judges are better suited to make such a decision due to their the applicable legal experience.
Probst said he spent 15 years working as a journalist with the Hutchinson News, and has seen search warrants being authorized with no thoughts on the consequences that could follow.
“The ability of the press to operate freely and without fear of reprisal is foundational to a functioning democracy – and its importance is enshrined in our Constitution,” Probst said. “During my time as a journalist, I saw warrants signed without any real judicial oversight – and that’s something we all should be concerned about. I also saw the good that can be created in a community when a free and independent press can do its work without fear.”
The lawmakers are reaching out to their peers, with the hope of having deeper conversations about how search warrants are currently authorized and how they can better support First Amendment rights.