September 27, 2023

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Marion Record reporter Deb Gruver sues Marion police chief Gideon Cody

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The first federal lawsuit filed in the wake of the raid of the Marion County Record has been filed and paints a damning picture of police overreach.

Marion County Record reporter Deb Gruver is suing Marion Chief of Police Gideon Cody personally, and does not name the City of Marion in her filing.

In court documents Gruver’s attorney Blake Shuart described the raid as “… shocking, unprecedented and unconstitutional …”

Gruver is suing for violations of both her first amendment rights as a member of the press, and fourth amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure.

The August 11th raid on the newsroom of the Marion County Record and its publisher’s home and confiscation of computers, cell phones and other equipment was seen by critics as violations of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of speech and protection against “unreasonable search and seizure.”

Both the complaint and the probable cause affidavit reference an August 1, 2023 “meet-and-greet at Kari’s Kitchen” with elected officials.  Record owner Eric Meyer and his reporter Phyllis Zorn were asked to leave  at the request of restaurant owner Kari Newell, who reportedly said she believes the paper “distorts’ the news” and “did not want [Record personnel] in her establishment.”

The rest of the events are well known by now — an anonymous tip about Newell’s drivers license suspension led to Meyer and his reporters double checking the information they’d been given, and then simply passing the information along to law enforcement with no plans to report on it.

Shortly afterward they were faced with a raid by the police chief (whom the paper had been investigating), and the stress of the event possibly caused the death of Meyer’s 98 year-old mother.  (Meyer’s mother lived at his home, which was also raided.)

Cody claimed, in the widely-criticized search warrant application, that merely accessing that website to confirm the status of a driver’s license was “identity theft,” and “unauthorized access” of a public computer system.

However, Gruver was not only not at the “meet and greet,” neither was she the reporter who double checked the information about Newell’s drivers license on the public-facing Kansas Department of Revenue site — that was reporter Phyllis Zorn.

Shuart, in the filing, describes what appears to be some personal animosity against Gruver by Cody.

“By August 11, Chief Cody had been serving as Marion Police Chief while knowingly under investigation by Ms. Gruver and the Record for alleged prior misconduct since the time of his application and hiring, had removed Record personnel from a public meet-and-greet session with a United States Congressman at the request of a restaurant owner, Ms. Newell, and had become aware of the Record’s acquisition of public information about Ms. Newell’s past drunken-driving arrest, which had caused an inflamed response by Ms. Newell – the same person who had become angry after apparently overhearing Ms. Gruver’s telephonic conversation with a source in April,” the complaint reads. “By August 11, Chief Cody had also directly expressed to reporter Phyllis Zorn his support for her work – telling her that Eric Meyer and Deb Gruver were the real problem with the paper.”

But during the raid — after handing the warrant to Gruver, who then began to call Meyer on her cellphone — Cody allegedly snatched the phone from her hand despite Gruver not actually being named in the warrant or application.

Indeed, the warrant only allowed Cody to seize “digital communications devices which were or have been used to access the Kansas Department of Revenue records website,” a computer or device that “has been used” to access the site and the authority to “conduct a preview search” of any devices but “to exclude from seizure those which have not been involved in the (alleged) identity theft.”

“The personal cellular phone was taken directly from Ms. Gruver’s person and had not been left in the offices,” the complaint reads. “There was no factual basis to believe Ms. Gruver’s personal cellular phone was evidence of the alleged crime, or any crime. Ms. Gruver’s cellular phone was not verified as having ‘been used to access the Kansas Department of Revenue records website.’ Rather than conducting a preview search on site to ‘exclude from seizure’ a personal cellular phone which had ‘not been involved in the [alleged] identity theft,’ Chief Cody seized the phone and removed it from the premises along with the other equipment.”

According to the complaint, Gruver asked Cody for her phone back during the three hour raid after telling him she had nothing to do with the driver’s license search and getting a reply “I actually believe you,” from Cody, but did not get her phone back until days later when the warrant was rescinded.

Gruver is asking for compensatory damages “in excess of $75,000” and punitive damages, also “in excess of $75,000” — both the minimum requirements for a federal lawsuit.

 

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