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Archive for Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Committee shoots down one open records bill, endorses another

February 22, 2006

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— Legislation to make sworn statements used to obtain arrest warrants open to public scrutiny was shot down by the House Governmental Organization and Election Committee, but an open meetings bill did win the panel's favor Tuesday.

At issue were probable cause affidavits, sworn statements by law enforcement officers to a judge setting out why filing criminal charges or issuing a search warrant is justified. Since 1979, the affidavits have been closed records, although they can be open by a judge's order.

The committee voted 8-5 against the bill to keep the affidavits sealed for 20 days or until there was an arraignment, whichever came first. Originally, the bill would have made the affidavits open after the warrant or summons was served.

In 44 states, probable cause affidavits are open to the public, although they can be closed by judicial order.

The Kansas Press Association reworked the bill in an effort to gain support. It was opposed by Kansas County and District Attorneys Association, which maintained the law is fine the way it is.

Chairman Jene Vickrey said the bill probably is dead for this year's legislative session. The committee did agree to send it to the Kansas Judicial Council for review.

"Hopefully, the Judicial Council will take this up and find where we can make some improvements in the law," said Vickrey, R-Louisburg.

Doug Anstaett, KPA executive director, said there was a "significant gulf" between supporters and opponents of the legislation.

"We're disappointed in the outcome," he said.

Anstaett said the bill was prompted by The Wichita Eagle being denied access to the affidavit for the search warrant of a man who was suspected but cleared in the BTK case, and the affidavit that led to the arrest of Dennis Rader as the BTK serial killer.

On a voice vote, the committee sent the House a bill to allow a member of a public body to object to participating in a closed or executive session, if there's reason to believe the Open Meetings Act is being violated.

At that point, the meeting can continue only if it's recorded. The recording would be kept for a year and would be made public only if a court determined a violation of the law had occurred. Exempted from being recorded are discussions dealing with student suspensions and expulsions, usually by school boards.

Rep. Frank Miller, R-Independence, opposed to the measure.

"It's a great way to kill any kind of executive meeting," he said. "It's going to impose a difficult situation on executive meetings."

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