After Kansas newspaper raid, lawmaker proposes taking warrant power away from magistrates

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TOPEKA — House Minority Leader Vic Miller said Tuesday he would introduce legislation to take away a magistrate’s power to authorize a search warrant, addressing one problematic aspect of the circumstances surrounding the raid on the Marion County Record.

Miller, a Topeka Democrat, said he hopes the proposal will launch a conversation that could expand to other revisions in state law, and prevent the issue from fading by the time the Legislature reconvenes in January.

The situation in Marion, he said, is “too grave to look the other way.”

“I’m hoping that in introducing the legislation, the courts themselves offer some quote-unquote better ideas,” Miller said. “This is just a very small thing in my mind that won’t cure the problem if judges — magistrate or district judges — if they don’t take these warrants seriously enough to actually consider the meat of the affidavits.”

Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody initiated the Aug. 11 raid of the newspaper office, the publisher’s home, and the home of a city councilwoman under the pretense that a reporter had committed identity theft by looking at public records. First Amendment attorneys say the reporter committed no crime and Magistrate Judge Laura Viar should have known the search warrants were unconstitutional when she signed them.

Under Kansas law, there is no requirement for a magistrate to be a licensed attorney. Applicants just need a high school diploma, or equivalent, and be able to pass a certification exam within 18 months. By contrast, district judges must be licensed attorneys engaged in a law practice or teaching law for five years, and at least 30 years old.

Magistrates in Kansas have limited powers. They can only conduct trials for traffic and tobacco infractions, or misdemeanor charges. But they can conduct preliminary hearings in felony cases, grant a restraining order and authorize search warrants.

Viar earned a law license from Washburn University in 2003 and became a magistrate last year. She served as Morris County attorney from 2005 to 2022 and as the city attorney for Cottonwood Falls from 2015 to 2022.

Topeka resident Keri Strahler has filed a complaint against Viar with the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct. A panel will consider the complaint on Sept. 1 and determine whether there is reason to believe Viar violated the Code of Judicial Conduct, according to correspondence between the commission secretary and Strahler.

Marion County District Court on Tuesday released documents that include the list of items police seized in the Aug. 11 raids. At the newsroom office, they took reporters’ personal cellphones, work computers, a server, hard drives and a “KDOR record,” a reference to information a reporter obtained through the Kansas Department of Revenue’s public website.

At publisher Eric Meyer’s home, where he lived with his 98-year-old mother, police took his personal cellphone and laptop, a computer, a hard drive, an internet router and the KDOR record.

Joan Meyer, who co-owned the paper with her son, hurled obscenities at police as they rifled through the home they shared. She collapsed and died a day later, and a coroner’s report pointed to the stress she suffered from the raid.

Last week, county attorney Joel Ensey determined there was “insufficient evidence” to justify the raids and allowed the items to be returned.

House Minority Leader Vic Miller says he plans to introduce legislation curtailing the powers of magistrates as a way of propelling conversation about the raid on the Marion County Record. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“If they just superficially sign these search warrants, the problem will occur again,” Miller said. “I’m trying to stir the pot. I’m trying to get people to focus on the magnitude and the potential consequences of these things being issued without truly due process.”

The Marion County Record is expected to take legal action in the wake of international outrage over the incident. Meanwhile, the newspaper has revealed more about its investigation of the police chief in the weeks leading up to the raid.

The newspaper cited unnamed sources who said Cody faced possible demotion over allegations of misconduct at the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department. The sources questioned Cody’s leadership and said he once ran over a dead body at a crime scene.

Cody, the newspaper reported, also had told colleagues about his desire to transfer from a unit he didn’t like earlier in his career. He allegedly told colleagues that if he hadn’t been transferred, he would have found “the skinniest and prettiest girl down there and f*cked her” to force a move.

The newspaper said it shared the allegations with Councilman Zach Collett, who was in charge of Cody’s background check, before the city hired Cody in April. A reporter again tried to talk to Collett about the allegations on May 1.

“Why are you still digging into this?” Collett asked.

At the Marion City Council meeting Monday night, during the public comments section, resident Darvin Markley demanded the resignation of Mayor David Mayfield, Collett and Cody.

Markley said the city faces “a huge financial liability,” and “the world is watching.”

“These three need to resign immediately,” Markley said. “We do not need to put any more lives in jeopardy with the possibilities of threats that’s come into this city.”

He added: “As far as Chief Cody goes, he can take his high horse he brought into this community and giddy up on out of town. The man needs to go. He should have been fired.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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