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Marion County to return evidence seized in raid on small Kansas newspaper

Luke Nozicka/The Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

(MARION, Kan.) — Marion County, Kansas, has said it will return evidence seized in a controversial police raid of a local newspaper after an attorney review.

A search warrant for the newspaper’s offices had been acquired based on a probable cause affidavit alleging that computer crimes had been committed at the location. However, Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey wrote in a statement Wednesday that he had come to the conclusion that “insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and items seized.”

Ensey said that the city will “work with the Marion County Record, or their representative, to coordinate the prompt return of all seized items.”

The controversy began when police executed a search warrant Friday on the newspaper and on the home of its co-owner, 98-year-old Joan Meyer, the Marion Police Department confirmed in a statement to ABC News. The raid was prompted by a complaint from a prominent local business owner and critic of the newspaper, who accused two city council members at a public meeting of illegally disseminating confidential criminal information about her, took place on Aug. 11.

A day after the raid, Joan Meyer died, according to her son. He said she was too stressed out by the raid to eat or sleep.

“How dare they take the last day of her life and make her filled with fear and anger,” Eric Meyer told ABC News.

The newspaper’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, told ABC News Wednesday that while he is pleased by Ensey’s decision, “We’re a long way from achieving justice.”

“It’s a promising first step, but it does nothing to cure the harm caused by the illegal search in the first place and regrettably it does not bring Joan Meyer back,” Rhodes said. “Someone has to pay for what occurred. This may stop the hemorrhaging, but it does not address the damages that occurred.”

The raid triggered immediate criticism toward police over First Amendment concerns.

“It’s everything you’ve ever heard of in the third world,” Eric Meyer, the editor and publisher of the Marion County Record and the son of Joan Meyer, said of the police raid. “It really is like we’re living in Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said Wednesday that an investigation into the circumstances of the raid “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,” the KBI said in a statement.

“We will work with the Marion County Record, or their representative, to coordinate the prompt return of all seized items,” the KBI said. “Once our investigation concludes we will present findings to the Marion County Attorney for review.”

The raid unfolded just days after an Aug. 7 Marion City Council meeting, which was recorded and posted to the council’s YouTube page, in which a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell, who had applied for a liquor license for a new catering business, stood up and accused two of the council members of “recklessly and negligently” sharing information about her driving record “with others without doing the due diligence of making sure that the information they were sharing was at least legal information…”

“I’m bringing it to you guys’ attention that this is going to be placed with the county attorney, that there was a driver’s privacy protection act that was breached by you and the individual that shared that information with you,” Newell said at the council meeting. “I’m very disappointed that as a representative of our community, in your elected position, that you would behave so negligently and maliciously.”

Newell could not be reached for comment by ABC News. She told The Associated Press that the Record violated the law to get her personal information about the status of her driving record, which the AP reported includes a 2008 drunken driving conviction.

On Monday, Rhodes sent a letter to Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, accusing him and his officers of a “heavy-handed” move and advising him that the newspaper intends “take every step to obtain relief” for the damages the raid caused. In the letter, shared with ABC News, Rhodes offered Cody an “opportunity to mitigate” the damages “from the illegal searches you personally authorized, directed and conducted.”

Rhodes wrote that the police “plainly violated the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as Sections 11, 15, and 18 of the Kansas Bill of Rights,” and he urged the police department to refrain from viewing any of the materials seized from the newspaper until a judge can hear the case.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also sent Cody a letter signed by 34 news outlets across the nation condemning the raid and accusing the police department of violating federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to conduct newsroom searches.

In a statement to ABC News, Cody said there are exceptions to the federal law, specifically noting, “When there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.” He declined to elaborate.

Rhodes denied that the Record’s reporters did anything illegal.

“The only crime that was committed was the crime of being a reporter. And in America, that is not a crime,” Rhodes told ABC News. “It may be in Chief Cody’s mind, but not under the constitution.”

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