Affidavit records should be open

Opinion column

Window on the West

 by Mary Rupert

I was rather disappointed to see in the past week that a bill that would open more public records in Kansas had run into some delays.

House Bill 2555 would have made more information available to the public from search warrant affidavits and arrest reports.

The bill passed the House, and when it was in a Senate committee, amendments took out some of the basic changes it was proposing. Some opposition to it surfaced from some organizations supporting law enforcement and prosecutors.

According to open records advocates, Kansas is one of the few, if not the only state, in the nation that did not allow the public to view these records. I am a member of a group of journalists that is advocating for this change. A change in the law would allow journalists, as well as anyone interested, to see these records.

A House committee received testimony from two residents of Leawood who wanted to see the records when their home was raided by police a few years ago. The couple, who was innocent, ended up in a court fight and had to spend $25,000 to finally be allowed to see the records. In other states, they wouldn’t have had to pay anything other than a small copying fee to see the records.

The proposed bill to open the records suffered a severe setback last week. While the prospect of the bill’s passage this year does not appear very good at the present time, as long as the Legislature is still in session, there is still a chance it may be passed.

Today I talked with Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who said that there might still be a chance for the bill. He said he voted against the changes the Senate committee made to it, and that he agreed with the House version.

“It is my hope that we will reconcile the bill favorable to the House version. Kansas is the only state in the union that does not have the full disclosure or transparency for search and arrest warrants,” Sen. Haley said.

As it is, current law allows for actions to be taken in near secrecy.

“I have heard innumerable complaints,” Sen. Haley said, from people who felt set upon, detained and arrested, for which there was no response, no answer to their questions about why their homes were being searched.

Most of his constituents, unlike the couple in Johnson County, did not have the money or the time off work to go to court to find out why, he added.

The bill as originally proposed in the House would have exempted from the open records certain categories, such as minors and anyone whose life may be in danger.

I have seen a few Missouri arrest reports that go into detail about why a person was arrested, detailing the complaint.  In Kansas, the part of the reports that the public may see usually don’t give very many details. Because of lack of details, it is sometimes hard to gauge the importance of a case, difficult to tell whether a charge for aggravated robbery involved someone walking into a bank holding a shotgun, or was it someone snatching a family pet away from an ex while holding up a fist.

In the past week, we have seen several reports on this topic of open affidavits. One of the best is from KSHB-TV, Channel 41, and is online at www.kshb.com/news/investigators/openrecords.

I think a change in favor of more openness is always a good idea. After many years as a journalist, I believe that more openness is better in the long run.  Opening records and meetings to the public may not always get the result that governments want immediately, but it does further communication with the public. Every time you hold an open meeting or open a record, governments will not necessarily get a result that they are looking for, but in the long run, increasing communication is a desirable goal, eventually leading to more public confidence in government.

Our government can’t be run under a veil of secrecy, and to do so invites the public to be suspicious of it. The public has the right to know what its government is doing. If the other states in the nation can deal with affidavits being open, why can’t Kansas?

To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email maryr@wyandottepublishing.com.

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