Starting Tuesday, Kansas will join the rest of the nation in providing public access to documents in which law enforcement gives details about why they searched or arrested someone.
The documents are called warrant affidavits. Police file them with judges when they’re seeking a search or arrest warrant. They contain the details of why that person is being investigated.
Until now, Kansas was the only state where the affidavits were automatically sealed and could be released only by a court order, said state Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, who shepherded a bill through the Legislature this year to change that.
Kansas newspapers and the Kansas Press Association had tried for years to get the records opened to the public, but bills to do that languished until Rubin, the influential chairman of the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, took up the cause.
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Rubin’s concern was sparked by a SWAT-style search of a home in his district in which Johnson County deputies held a Leawood family at gunpoint while searching their house.
A suspected marijuana-growing operation turned out to be an indoor tomato garden. The officers left without arresting anyone or explaining why the family was targeted for a raid, and the affidavit used to obtain the warrant was closed.
“I’m a strong advocate for accountability and transparency of all government agencies,” said Rubin, a former federal judge. “I don’t see any reason that shouldn’t be applied to law enforcement.”
Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, acknowledged the Leawood raid marked the legislative turning point for opening affidavits.
Before, he said, the response from lawmakers had been “is this a solution looking for a problem?”
“In this case, we had an actual real-life example that was somewhat outrageous,” he said.
As of Tuesday, search and arrest warrant affidavits will be presumptively open to the public unless prosecutors or police persuade a judge there are good reasons to close them, Rubin said.
The exceptions are narrow and focused on assuring the safety of victims and witnesses and protecting confidential investigative techniques, he said.
The new law also encourages judges to remove sensitive and personal information and to release the rest of the document, he said.
Sedgwick County District Court Clerk Bernie Lumbreras said that office is developing a form to request warrant affidavits.
The chief judge for criminal courts, John Kisner Jr., will select judges to review those requests, she said.
Come Tuesday, people interested in getting a copy of a warrant affidavit will be able to go to the seventh floor of the county courthouse and file a request, Lumbreras said.
She cautioned that few, if any, records will be available immediately Tuesday.
The new law is not retroactive, so it applies only to warrants served on or after July 1, she said.
The new law says that records of arrest warrants and the sworn testimony to get them will become public after arraignment in misdemeanor cases and after a preliminary hearing and arraignment in felony cases.
Search warrant affidavits and supporting documents will be available immediately to the subject of the search and open to the public 14 days after the search is conducted, according to legislative records.
The court has up to 10 days to release or withhold an affidavit after a request is made – five days for prosecutors to review it for redaction recommendations and another five for the court to rule.
District Attorney Marc Bennett said he wants to reduce that time lag as much as possible.
He said he’s working with local law enforcement agencies to “try to do the editing up front so we don’t have to do it later.”
He said the most important information to make public is the recitation of facts, “why we believe we got the right guy and why we think we have the right crime charged.”
“The idea is not, not ... blocking out line after line after line,” he said.
Anstaett said he hopes other counties’ prosecutors will follow Bennett’s lead and try to make the documents available as soon as possible with minimum objections.
“Timeliness is what makes news, not waiting several days for the information,” he said.
Although he said he doesn’t think the new law is perfect, “It’s a vast improvement over what we had.”