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Kansas reporter files federal lawsuit against police chief who raided her newspaper’s office

Aug 30, 2023, 2:49 PM | Updated: 3:26 pm

The offices of the Marion County Record weekly newspaper sit across the street from the Marion Coun...

The offices of the Marion County Record weekly newspaper sit across the street from the Marion County, Kansas, courthouse, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Marion, Kansas. The newspaper's aggressive coverage divided its central Kansas community of about 1,900 residents even before a raid by local police on its offices on Aug. 11, brought it and the town to international attention. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/John Hanna)

One of the reporters who works at the small Kansas newspaper that was raided by authorities earlier this month filed a federal lawsuit against the police chief Wednesday.

Deb Gruver believes Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody violated her constitutional rights when he abruptly snatched her personal cellphone out of her hands during a search where officers also seized computers from the Marion County Record’s office, according to the lawsuit. That Aug. 11 search and two others conducted at the homes of the newspaper’s publisher and a City Council member have thrust the town into the center of a debate over the press protections in the First Amendment.

Cody didn’t immediately respond to an email or text message from The Associated Press on Wednesday seeking comment. He has said little publicly since the raids other than posting a defense of them on the police department’s Facebook page. In court documents he filed to get the search warrants, he argued 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.

But the newspaper’s publisher, Eric Meyer, has said he believes the identity theft allegations provided a convenient excuse for the search, and the police chief was really upset about Gruver’s investigation into his background with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department before he was hired in Marion earlier this year. Meyer has said he plans to file his own lawsuit.

Gruver said in a statement that by filing her lawsuit “I’m standing up for journalists across the country.”

“It is our constitutional right to do this job without fear of harassment or retribution, and our constitutional rights are always worth fighting for,” Gruver said.

The city administrator directed questions about the lawsuit to its attorney, Brian Bina, and outside council, Jennifer Hill. Neither attorney immediately returned phone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The police department’s investigation of the newspaper began after a local restaurant owner accused reporters of improperly using personal information to access details about the status of her suspended driver’s license and her record that included a DUI arrest.

The lawsuit says that the warrant expressly said that the search was supposed to focus only on equipment that was used to access those records, which was done by another reporter at the paper. But after Cody handed Gruver a copy of the warrant and she told him that she needed to call the publisher, he quickly grabbed her personal phone.

One of the officers even read Gruver, another reporter and an office administrator their Miranda rights before forcing them outside in the heat to watch the three-hour search.

After the search of the newspaper office, officers went on to search the home Meyer shared with his 98-year-old mother. Video of that raid shows how distraught his 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.

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.

Authorities returned the computers and cellphones they took during the raids after the prosecutor decided there was insufficient evidence to justify their seizure.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is looking into the newspaper’s actions, but it hasn’t provided any updates on its investigation.

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Kansas reporter files federal lawsuit against police chief who raided her newspaper’s office