Reporter sues police chief following phone seizure during newspaper raid
Marion County Record reporter Deb Gruver filed a civil suit in federal court against Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody on Aug. 30, 2023, for violations of her First and Fourth Amendment rights, according to court documents reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Cody led the Aug. 11 raid on the Record’s newsroom, at one point “snatching [Gruver’s] phone out of her hand.” Gruver’s complaint points out that Cody’s warrant application for the raid did not mention either Gruver or her phone and that seizing it therefore “exceeded the scope of the warrant.”
The complaint describes Cody’s warrant application and the raid as “unreasonable and unlawful [and] evidence of his malicious intent.” The filing also claims that Gruver’s investigation into Cody’s alleged prior acts of misconduct for the newspaper had “sparked [his] desire for retaliation against her personally.”
Gruver has requested damages exceeding $75,000 as compensation for the “emotional distress, mental anguish and physical injury” she sustained during the raid. Gruver had earlier alleged on Facebook that her previously dislocated finger was reinjured.
“Although I brought this suit in my own name, I’m standing up for journalists across the country,” Gruver told the Kansas Reflector. “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’s attorney, Blake Shuart, who pointed to Gruver’s 35 years of journalism experience and her previous service as a board member of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, added, “Gruver is not the one to target for a violation of fundamental constitutional rights. She will fight for herself and her fellow journalists.”
Marion County Record reporter Deb Gruver was injured when local law enforcement executed a search warrant on the newspaper’s offices and forcibly seized her cellphone, alongside other equipment and journalistic work product. The Kansas newspaper reported that the seizures jeopardized its ability to publish its weekly edition.
A copy of the search warrant, obtained by the Kansas Reflector, shows that the search was undertaken as part of an investigation into alleged unlawful use of a computer and identity theft.
According to the Record, however, when a reporter requested a copy of the probable cause affidavit that summarizes the circumstances and evidence supporting the warrant, the district court issued a signed statement that there wasn’t one on file.
The Record reported that during an Aug. 7 city council meeting a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell, had accused the newspaper of illegally obtaining information that she had a prior DUI conviction and had driven without a license, as well as supplying the information to Marion Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel.
In an article responding to the allegations, Record Publisher and Editor Eric Meyer said that a source had reached out with the information via Facebook, and had independently sent it to Herbel as well. The Record had verified the allegations through a public website but decided not to publish it, instead alerting the Marion Police Department that the source may have obtained the information illegally.
The morning of Aug. 11, Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar signed the search warrant for the Record’s office. Marion Police Department officers and Marion County sheriff’s deputies executed it within two hours, ordering staff to leave the office as equipment was seized.
Meyer told the Reflector that officers seized “everything” from the newsroom, and that he wasn’t sure how the staff would complete the edition before it needed to go to press on Aug. 15.
Gruver alleged on Facebook that Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody injured her finger when he “forcibly yanked” her personal cellphone from her hand. “I’ve filed a report with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation because a previously dislocated finger was re-injured,” Gruver wrote.
The Associated Press reported that officers also read Gruver her rights while Cody watched, though the reporter was not arrested or detained.
Officers also executed a second warrant at Meyer’s home — where he lives with his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, a co-owner and correspondent for the Record, the Reflector reported. Joan Meyer passed away the following day, which the Record attributed in part to the stress of the raid.
Eric Meyer, a veteran reporter from the Milwaukee Journal and former journalism professor at the University of Illinois, told The Kansas City Star following the raid that the Record had also been investigating Cody’s background and allegations of wrongdoing.
Cody, who did not immediately respond to a request for further information, told the Star that the lack of an article about the allegations shows they had no basis. “If it was true, they would’ve printed it,” Cody said.
On Aug. 14, a coalition of more than 30 press freedom organizations sent a letter to Cody condemning the raid and calling for the return of the newspaper’s equipment and reporting materials.
Freedom of the Press Foundation, which operates the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, called the raid “alarming.”
“Based on the reporting so far, the police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency,” said Director of Advocacy Seth Stern. “Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.”
In a statement released on Facebook, Cody defended the legality of the raid and said that the Marion Police Department had received assistance from local and state investigators.
“It is true that in most cases, [the federal Privacy Protection Act] requires police to use subpoenas, rather than search warrants, to search the premises of journalists unless they themselves are suspects in the offense that is the subject of the search,” Cody wrote.
Meyer, who could not immediately be reached for comment, told the Record that while the paper’s attorneys are working to have the equipment returned, they also plan to file a federal lawsuit to ensure that such a raid never happens again.
“Our first priority is to be able to publish next week,” Meyer said, “but we also want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today. We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law.”