Kansas reporter files federal lawsuit against police chief who raided her newspaper's office

One of the reporters who works at the small Kansas newspaper that was raided by authorities earlier this month filed a federal lawsuit against the police chief Wednesday.

Deb Gruver believes Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody violated her constitutional rights when he abruptly snatched her personal cellphone out of her hands during a search where officers also seized computers from the Marion County Record's office, according to the lawsuit. That Aug. 11 search and two others conducted at the homes of the newspaper's publisher and a City Council member have thrust the town into the center of a debate over the press protections in the First Amendment.

Cody didn't immediately respond to an email or text message from The Associated Press on Wednesday seeking comment. He has said little publicly since the raids other than posting a defense of them on the police department's Facebook page. In court documents he filed to get the search warrants, he argued that he had probable cause to believe the newspaper and City Council member Ruth Herbel, whose home was also raided, had violated state laws against identity theft or computer crimes.

But the newspaper's publisher, Eric Meyer, has said he believes the identity theft allegations provided a convenient excuse for the search, and the police chief was really upset about Gruver's investigation into his background with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department before he was hired in Marion earlier this year. Meyer has said he plans to file his own lawsuit.

The Record is known for its aggressive coverage of local politics and its community of 1,900 people about 150 miles (161 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, Missouri.

Gruver — a veteran reporter with more than three decades of experience — said in a statement that by filing her lawsuit “I’m standing up for journalists across the country." She has previously worked at other newspapers in Kansas, Wyoming and Indiana and has won awards for her reporting.

“It is our constitutional right to do this job without fear of harassment or retribution, and our constitutional rights are always worth fighting for,” said Gruver, who had the words “Freedom of the press” tattooed on her right forearm the same day her lawsuit was filed.

The city administrator directed questions about the lawsuit to its attorney, Brian Bina, and outside council, Jennifer Hill. Neither attorney immediately returned phone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The police department’s investigation of the newspaper began after a local restaurant owner accused reporters of improperly using personal information to access details about the status of her suspended driver’s license and her record that included a DUI arrest. A spokesman for the agency that maintains those records has said the reporter's search on a public website was likely legal.

The lawsuit says that the warrant expressly said that the search was supposed to focus only on equipment that was used to access those records, which was done by another reporter at the paper. But after Cody handed Gruver a copy of the warrant and she told him that she needed to call the publisher, he quickly grabbed her personal phone and took it.

“In seizing Ms. Gruver’s personal cellular phone despite the seizure exceeding the scope of the unreasonable and unlawful search warrant, Chief Cody acted in unreasonable and unnecessarily violent fashion, causing injury to plaintiff’s Gruver’s rights and her person,” the lawsuit said.

One of the officers even read Gruver, another reporter and an office administrator their Miranda rights even though they were never arrested before forcing them outside in the heat to watch the three-hour search.

After the search of the newspaper office, officers went on to search the home Meyer shared with his 98-year-old mother. Video of that raid shows how distraught his mother became as officers searched through their belongings. Meyer said he believes that stress contributed to the death of his mother, Joan Meyer, a day later.

Legal experts believe the raid on the newspaper violated a federal privacy law or a state law shielding journalists from having to identify sources or turn over unpublished material to law enforcement.

Authorities returned the computers and cellphones they took during the raids after the prosecutor decided there was insufficient evidence to justify their seizure. A judge ordered investigators Tuesday to also destroy electronic copies they made of the newspaper's files.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is looking into the newspaper's actions, but it hasn't provided any updates on its investigation.

It's not clear what action local officials might take. The City Council refused to discuss the raids at its meeting last week, and the mayor has told the Record that he doesn’t plan to take any action in response to them until after the KBI completes its investigation.