Ron Keefover: Let sun shine in on court records

02/23/2014 7:54 AM

02/23/2014 7:56 AM

“Sunshine is the strongest antiseptic – its rays may penetrate areas previously closed.” So opined the late Robert H. Miller, former chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, as he explained in a court case why government records must be open under penalty of law.

His sage admonition of 30 years ago remains true today.

Most are unaware, but under Kansas statutes all affidavits setting forth probable cause to issue criminal complaints or search warrants are sealed. One interested in the truth behind the issuance of a criminal charge or search warrant in Kansas may not learn it from what should be an open court record. That is because many years ago, without a public hearing, a bill was enacted closing these affidavits, or sworn statements to support issuance of the search and arrest warrants.

The need to declare these documents open court records once and for all was borne out time and time again during 15 years I spent as a journalist covering the courts and 32 years as public information officer for them. The latest example is illustrative:

A Leawood couple has spent $25,000 in legal fees over the past year to find out the basis of a police raid of their home by law enforcement agents. Despite pleas made through the Kansas Open Records Act and repeated telephone calls, they were not allowed to inspect the document that served as the basis of a 2 1/2-hour full-battle-dress, “on-the-floor-now!” drug raid.

More than a year later, the couple learned the raid had been based on questionable results of a field lab analysis of what was not marijuana but green tea leaves. They also learned that the “investigation” began by the observance of the father purchasing indoor gardening supplies from a hydroponic shop for his son’s school experiment.

The mother, who watched the raid in horror as her husband was handcuffed and their children scared beyond belief, tearfully related the incident recently to members of the House Judiciary Committee during its consideration of House Bill 2555, which would open the affidavits for search and arrest warrants after they have been served. Enactment of that legislation would finally, and after many years of secrecy, make the courts in Kansas as transparent as those in, say, East Germany, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Slovakia, Moscow – you get the idea – just as every other state and federal court in this country does.

HB 2555 could help Kansas citizens finally see the light of day in our criminal court records.

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