The police chief who led the raid on Kansas newspaper Marion County Record alleged that a reporter impersonated someone else and lied about her intentions when she obtained the business records of a local owner, according to court documents.
Reporter Phyllis Zorn, newspaper publisher Eric Meyer, and the newspaper’s attorney insisted Sunday that no laws were broken when Zorn accessed a public website.
The police raid on August 11 has raised First Amendment issues with some legal experts pointing to the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, which broadly prohibits law enforcement officials from searching for or seizing information from reporters.
According to Meyer, a confidential source contacted the newspaper and provided evidence that Marion restaurant owner Kari Newell—who had kicked newspaper staff out of a public forum—had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to drive without a valid driver’s license. But Meyer has insisted that no one’s identity was stolen in the course of the news gathering.
Court affadavits provided to the Associate Press by the newspaper’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, showed that the raid was sparked by Zorn’s having obtained Newell’s driving record.
Acting on a tip, the newspaper had checked the public website of the Kansas Department of Revenue for the status of Newell’s driver’s license as it related to a 2008 conviction for drunk driving.
Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody wrote in the affadavit that the Department of Revenue told him Zorn and someone using the name “Kari Newell” had downloaded the information.
“Downloading the document involved either impersonating the victim or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought,” Cody further wrote.
The license records are normally confidential under Kansas state law, but they can be accessed under certain circumstances. An online user can request their own records but must provide a driver’s license number and date of birth. Other instances in which such records can be provided include an attorney’s use in a legal matter or for insurance investigations. They can also be accessed for research projects about statistical reports—as long as personal information won’t be disclosed.
According to Meyer, Zorn contacted the Department of Revenue before her online search and was instructed on how to search records.
Zorn responded to the police allegations by saying, “I went to a Kansas Department of Revenue website and that’s where I got the information…Not to my knowledge was anything illegal or wrong.”
According to attorney Rhodes, Zorn’s actions were legal under both state and federal laws. He asserted that using a subject’s name “is not identity theft,” adding, “That’s just the way of accessing that person’s record.”
And according to Meyer, the Record had Newell’s driver’s license number and date of birth because a source provided it unsolicited.
Ultimately, the Record decided not to write about Newell’s record. But when she revealed at a City Council meeting that she had driven under a suspended license, the newspaper reported that statement.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has since said that all items seized in the raid, including cellphones and reporting materials, would be returned to the Marion County Record, and it has opened an independent investigation into whether the Record broke any laws, but Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach has said he doesn’t see the KBI’s role as investigating the conduct of the police.