Editor’s note: The video above comes from FOX4’s February 2023 reporting on this lawsuit.
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Shawna Maloney recalls the sound of her personal belongings being thrown about as Kansas Highway Patrol troopers searched her family’s RV during a cross-country vacation in March 2018.
The trooper who initiated the traffic stop and early morning search on Interstate 70 found nothing illegal.
He used what is commonly referred to as the “Kansas two step,” which involves unlawfully detaining drivers with questions about travel plans without consent or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity after the initial purpose of the stop was resolved, a 2021 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] states.
“I felt violated because this was our home while we were on the road,” Maloney said.
Maloney was the first to take the stand Monday in the U.S. District Court of Kansas where she testified about her mistrust of law enforcement following the incident, at times wiping tears from her eyes.
She’s one of several who have sued Kansas Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Herman Jones, as well as the agency, asking the judge to order a stop to the Kansas two step tactic.
“It would mean protection for other families, and it would mean protection, even if they don’t know their own rights,” Maloney said.
The trial, held before U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn Vratil, comes during Jones’ last two months in KHP leadership.
ACLU of Kansas legal director Sharon Brett described Jones in her opening statement Monday as an agency leader who “passes the buck” to avoid supervision of troopers’ constitutional violations.
The ACLU argues troopers target motorists with out-of-state license plates or those traveling to or from Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, despite prior court rulings that aimed to restrict how troopers factor a vehicle’s origin or destination into their reasonable suspicion.
“Police should not be permitted to abuse their power under the guise of public safety,” Brett said.
Arthur Chalmers, an assistant state attorney general who is representing Jones, deferred his opening statement until after the plaintiffs finish presenting their case.
In August, Chambers argued the ACLU lacks evidence to support claims that Jones was indifferent in his oversight of troopers’ alleged Fourth Amendment violations.
FOX4 contacted Lt. Candice Breshears, spokesperson for KHP, but she declined to comment.
“The Kansas Highway Patrol is unable to give any statements or make any comments about pending litigation,” she said in an email.
‘Confidential investigative techniques’
In September, Curtis Martinez, a Denver, Colorado, resident, said he was commuting to Kansas City, Missouri, for work when he was stopped by a KHP trooper for an expired license plate.
He received a ticket and assumed that would be the end of it.
Instead, as Martinez started to pull away, he said the officer pivoted back and asked if he could question him further.
For the next hour, Martinez and his passenger were kept on the side of the road while the trooper waited for a local police department’s K-9 officer to arrive and then searched the vehicle.
Finding nothing, the trooper and officer eventually allowed Martinez to continue his journey.
“I felt harassed,” Martinez told FOX4 in February. “I felt, you know, demoralized. I felt like he just invaded all of my rights, all of my personal rights at that point.”
In late 2022, FOX4 Problem Solvers requested body camera and dashboard camera footage of the traffic stop after Martinez attempted to request it, but was denied.
Both KHP and Riley County Police Department, who arrived with K-9s, refused to release the video, claiming the footage is considered a criminal investigative record under the Kansas Open Records Act.
“Specifically, if the footage were released, it would reveal confidential investigative techniques or procedures that are not known to the general public,” Riley County stated in an email.
But what police tactics are Kansas officers using that they don’t want the public to know about? And what is it about these procedures that makes them so secretive?
“It just makes no sense to me,” Martinez previously told FOX4. “What are they trying to hide?”
Traffic tactics exposed in court
In a deposition Monday, former-ACLU attorney Josh Pierson questioned KHP Trooper Justin Rohr, who initiated the stop and search on Maloney’s RV.
Rohr testified KHP trains its officers to use the strategy as a means of gaining consent to question drivers further when reasonable suspicion is not apparent.
He said he believes drivers know that they don’t have to respond when being questioned further.
But Maloney said that’s far from accurate.
She testified troopers’ position of authority causes citizens to fear the consequences of refusing to answer those questions.
Mark Erich, Maloney’s husband, who was traveling with her and their children at the time, testified Monday that he was told they were free to leave at least three times during the search.
Rohr admitted when he started to walk away, but then re-approached them, they were not free to leave despite being told they were.
“In theory, I guess he wasn’t free to go because I already decided to detain him,” Rohr said in his deposition.
He also said he did not recall damaging the RV during the search.
But Maloney testified to numerous damages resulting from the search, including a broken toilet, lights torn from the ceiling, floorboards and walls pulled back, as well as the dashboard and radio having been removed and taken apart, among other broken items.
“I don’t trust them (law enforcement) and it makes me very scared,” she said.
Chalmers, the attorney representing Jones, objected numerous times to inquire about the relevance of the testimony.
He said the probable cause that troopers relied on to conduct the search is not a topic of debate in the lawsuit.
But the judge allowed the testimony to continue.
“Understanding how troopers do their job is very important,” Vratil said.
Erich said the experience has left his family traumatized, with his three children refusing to step foot inside the RV since.
The couple ultimately decided to sell the RV after their children refused to travel in it roughly three years later.
“Watching my kids duck down as we drive past a police officer, it crushes you,” he said.