During a police raid earlier this month on the Marion County Record newspaper in Kansas, law enforcement secretly copied data from at least one computer they seized during the raid and didn’t return it when ordered to do so, the outlet’s attorney said.
Officers illegally copied 17 gigs of data from the newspaper’s computer system, said Bernie Rhodes, the newspaper’s lawyer.
"This simply raises even further the level of suspicion that what occurred here was not done for any legitimate purpose," Rhodes told VOA.
On Aug. 11, local police — led by Chief Gideon Cody — raided the weekly newspaper’s office and the co-owner’s home. They seized computers, cellphones, hard drives and other items, which were then held in a storage locker at the sheriff’s office.
Police later said the raid was over a complaint filed by a local restaurant owner that a Record reporter had committed identity theft by looking up public information through the Kansas Department of Revenue website.
After the raid was widely condemned by press freedom groups and news organizations around the world, the county attorney ruled on August 16 that there was insufficient evidence to justify the raid, and a judge ordered the seized devices to be returned. Eight seized items were included on the inventory list provided to the Record.
But when the district court released an inventory list earlier this week, it included nine items, according to Rhodes. The missing item is listed as “OS Triage Digital DATA” in the court filing.
"It’s called fruit of the poisonous tree," Rhodes said, using a legal metaphor that describes evidence obtained illegally. This latest development supports the belief that "the entire search was invalid," he said.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
This development confirms the newspaper’s concerns about what the police may have done with their seized devices.
"I’m concerned about what the police looked through," Record publisher Eric Meyer told VOA earlier this week in Marion. "They’re supposed to look for certain things. But who watches the watchers? You don’t know."
Rhodes told VOA that if the newspaper cannot come to a resolution with the city, they plan to take legal action over the raid.
"We would intend to sue Chief Cody, the police department and the city of Marion for the constitutional violations that occurred," he said.