WICHITA, Kansas – What is public and what stays private when it comes to cops and search warrants?
The State of Kansas could dramatically increase public access if it passes House Bill 2555 into law.
“I have some concerns about this bill, as it’s written,” says Wichita Attorney Charlie O’Hara. “They’re releasing affidavits that are one-sided, sworn testimony about what happened. When it comes out of the preliminary hearing you at least get confrontation, with the other side asking questions which brings into question whether what these people are saying is true. Their credibility can be attacked and things like that.”
O’Hara wonders if the bill would have an impact on neighbors who want to out their neighbors.
“If someone has a meth house, yes, that’s a good example,” says O’Hara. “if someone tells on their neighbor, will they still do it, if they know their name will go public.”
Under House Bill 2555, the person who made the original complaint will be made available to the accused.
Lawmakers in the Senate will consider it next. Some still have questions about the bill, as it is written.
“It could certainly be a concern,” says Republican State Senator Michael O’Donnell of Wichita, “That we might reveal too much, I guess, in some cases. There’s always a risk of exposing ourselves too much, and in some of the high profile cases, I think it’s a lot easier to get in that situation.”
O’Donnell says he will ask to make sure safeguards are written into the bill so there is no “chilling” effect on those who rat out their neighbors for crimes.
Democrat John Carmichael responded to KSN News requests for more information on House Bill 2555. Carmichael says:
“The bill was heard in the House Judiciary committee on which I serve. I supported the bill there. The bill was reported favorably by House Judiciary and passed the House on a vote of 113-10, a substantial margin. I cannot predict what the Kansas Senate might do. If they become unsnarled in consideration of bills like the discrimination against gays bill, human surrogacy bill, and live sonograms in Senate committees, HB 2555 will not reach the Senate floor. If on the other hand, the Senate realizes this is needed legislation, will permit innocent property owners to know why their home was searched and provide the press needed information concerning criminal prosecutions, the bill may have a chance. Adoption of this bill would bring Kansas in line with the majority of states and the federal government, all of which allow access to this information.”
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett also has concerns about 2555.
“There are some concerns, and we as attorneys general are watching it closely,” says Bennett. “Of course we are very, very interested in open government. Without question. But in some cases, will this impact us? Yes. We would have to redact things like social security numbers and other personal items that are often in affidavits.”
Bennett says that would take an enormous amount of time, and it would cost resources that his office just does not have.
“Then there are witnesses who don’t want a camera to show up in their neighborhood or their neighbors to know they are the ones who made the call,” says Bennett of witnesses who would be listed on criminal cases.
O’Hara hopes that parts of the bill are just written again, or the whole thing is reconsidered.
“This open public record can certainly be a good thing,” says O’Hara. “Because in a search warrant, if they never file a case, and they search your home, you sure want to know how they got in your home. I mean, if it happened to be the wrong house, or someone got involved in a domestic dispute (and) just lied on somebody and got a search warrant against them, that would be something that I think everybody would want to know.”
But O’Hara says lawmakers need to be careful before the final version is passed.
“If affidavits go public,” says O’Hara, “Evidence and locations are going to get out and it’s going to be all kinds of things getting out. There’s cooperating witnesses and everyone can figure out who’s the cooperating witness and who is not. Like in a big drug case where there’s a lot of people involved, and then the affidavit comes out and you see who told on all these people. That person’s name is going to get out or they’re going to figure out who that person is and hopefully they will be okay but those things do get out and you want to prevent those as much as you can.”