- Date of Incident
- August 11, 2023
- Status of Seized Equipment
- Returned in full
- Search Warrant Obtained
- Actor who seized equipment
- Law enforcement
Police turn over files secretly copied during raid on Marion County newspaper, destroy backups
On Aug. 30, 2023, the Sheriff’s Office in Marion County, Kansas, turned over digital files gathered surreptitiously in the town police’s raid on the Marion County Record, the paper reported.
In addition to seizing computers, cellphones, a file server and other journalistic work product during the Aug. 11 raid on the Record’s offices and publishers’ home, law enforcement copied the newspaper’s computer files onto a storage device. That device, a USB drive, was not included on the inventory list later submitted to the paper’s attorney, Bernard J. Rhodes. It also wasn’t among the items returned following an Aug. 16 court order mandating police return all equipment seized in the raid.
On Aug. 22, the storage device, a USB drive, appeared on a list released by the Marion District Court, which received the seized items. Rhodes then applied to the court for an additional order to have it relinquished, which was signed by a judge on Aug. 29.
In accordance with the order, the sheriff’s office made a copy of the files for Rhodes and then destroyed the USB device as well as a backup copy police had made after the raid. The Record reported that the files amounted to 17 gigabytes of data. The sheriff’s office also gave the Record all copies of photos the police took during the raid at both the newspaper’s offices and the publishers’ home, as well as a list of the search terms that were used to gather the data.
Rhodes told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker via email that, to his knowledge, everything seized in the raid has now been returned.
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.
Kansas authorities to destroy digital files from newspaper raid
The Sheriff's Office in Marion County, Kansas, will return digital files gathered in a raid on the Marion County Record and erase its own copies, per a proposed court order signed Aug. 28, 2023, by lawyers for the paper and the city and county of Marion, the Record’s attorney confirmed to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The files were held in violation of an Aug. 16 court order mandating their return.
In an Aug. 29 phone conversation with the Tracker, attorney Bernard J. Rhodes explained that the Marion police, in addition to seizing computers, cellphones, a file server and other journalistic work product during their Aug. 11 raid on the Record’s offices, had copied the newspaper’s files onto their own storage device. The police brought the seized materials to the sheriff’s office and then copied the files onto a second backup device.
No record of the copied files, however, was found on the list of seized material the police later submitted to Rhodes’ forensic examiner. The discrepancy became clear after the Marion District Court released an inventory list Aug. 22 with the line item “OS triage digital data” — a reference to the OS Triage software the sheriff’s office uses to search digital files.
Rhodes then reached out to the Marion County attorneys, who he said agreed — along with the sheriff’s office — to send him a new copy of the seized files before destroying their own. As of press time, a court order mandating the return of the files was awaiting the judge’s signature.
Rhodes, however, said, “No one has been able to explain to me why the list that was given to my forensic examiner did not include this drive. It causes me to question the basis for this search, the method of executing this search, and what was done with the material seized.”
Kansas county attorney withdraws search warrant, returns seized equipment
On Aug. 16, 2023, Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey released a statement withdrawing the search warrant used to raid the offices of the Marion County Record and authorizing the release of seized equipment and reporting materials, citing “insufficient evidence” to justify the search. Ensey also asked the court to release the affidavits filed to obtain the warrants.
Four computers, a hard drive and the personal cellphones of two reporters were seized when local law enforcement searched the weekly newspaper’s offices on Aug. 11 as part of an investigation into alleged unlawful use of a computer and identity theft. Equipment and reporting materials were also seized during a simultaneous raid of the home of the newspaper’s co-owners.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said that it is continuing investigation independently, but without review of any seized materials.
Bernie Rhodes, the attorney representing the Record, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that law enforcement has said the equipment was not searched. He said he plans to have a forensics expert confirm that the devices were not accessed or altered.
“This is a promising first step to stop the hemorrhaging from the violation of the paper’s First Amendment rights, but it does nothing to cure the damages done by the original illegal search,” Rhodes said, adding that they are actively contemplating a civil rights lawsuit.
“While I’m pleased with today’s developments, we have a long way to go to establish that justice is served,” Rhodes said.
The Record published its first edition since the raid on Aug. 16, KWCH reported, with the headline article titled, “Seized… but not silenced.”
Local law enforcement executed a search warrant on the offices of the Marion County Record on Aug. 11, 2023, seizing computers, cellphones, a file server 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.
Officers also arrived simultaneously with 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 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. According to court documents obtained by KSHB, officers seized two cellphones, four computers, a backup hard drive and reporting materials.
The personal cellphones belonged to reporters Deb Gruver and Phyllis Zorn. Gruver alleged on Facebook that Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody injured her finger when he “forcibly yanked” the phone from her hand.
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.”
This article was updated to reflect reporting from KSHB around the type of equipment seized.