Open-records advocates decry effort in Legislature to potentially curtail public access to police reports

Two years ago Kansas was the only state in the country that prohibited the public from seeing records that tell why police arrested someone or searched a house or business.

But a bill passed by the Legislature in 2014 opened up these records, called “probable cause affidavits,” thereby making law enforcement agencies more accountable to the public.

On Wednesday, though, the Senate passed an amended bill that has the potential to seal those records once again, and open-records advocates are calling it “disastrous.”

“It guts the bill that we worked so hard to pass two years ago,” said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. “It hands judges a laundry list of ways to seal these documents.”

But Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, disagreed, saying the amendment merely added more specific guidance for judges to determine whether to redact or seal the affidavits.

The objections that are being posed by open-records advocates are “unwarranted,” he said. “The current language in there (the original bill) is rather vague … The amendment is very, very specific.”

The bill, HB 2545, originated in the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight, which was chaired until this week by Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee.

Rubin had sponsored the bill in 2014 that finally opened the probable cause affidavits based on several cases in which people had been unable to get the reports.

In particular, one case involving a Leawood couple, Robert and Adlynn Harte, had raised a national outcry. Johnson County sheriff’s deputies had staged an early-morning raid on their home but then refused to explain what gave them probable cause to conduct the search. The couple was never charged with a crime.

The Hartes spent two years and $25,000 in a court battle to get the probable cause affidavit that led to the search.

The 2014 law required anyone seeking a probable cause affidavit to make a request to the court, and then a judge would determine if the affidavit contained information that should be redacted, such as the name of a rape victim, or if the affidavit should be sealed altogether. The law also provided for the prosecutor and defense attorney to object to the release of the affidavit.

A problem that cropped up after the law was passed was that some judges required a hearing each time a request for an affidavit was made, even if the affidavit had already been released to another party.

Rubin set out to correct that during this legislative session by filing the “cleanup” bill, HB 2545.

HB 2545 passed the House recently and was sent to the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

There, on Monday, Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican and member of the committee, attached an amendment sponsored by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

It then was fast-tracked and scheduled for a floor debate and a vote on Wednesday.

The Senate amendment states that if the probable cause affidavit contains information that constitutes “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” the judge may redact or seal the affidavit — something judges already can do.

Anstaett, with the press association, said Wednesday that the amended language was overly broad.

“It gives judges a blank check to seal everything. What they have done is cut our legs right out from under us,” he said, referring to the public’s interest in open records.

Anstaett said he believed the Senate amendment was a reaction not to an inadequacy in the 2014 law but to police officers including too much irrelevant information in the affidavits.

But he added that police officers should have better training on what should be included in a probable cause affidavit.

“Our research shows law enforcement agents in other jurisdictions routinely omit irrelevancies from affidavits,” Anstaett said in written testimony submitted to the Senate on Wednesday. “Why do their counterparts in Kansas load affidavits with such information?”

The bill goes now to conference committee, where several House and Senate legislators could remove the amendment or, in the alternative, possibly kill the whole bill.

But Anstaett and others raised doubts Wednesday about the success of removing the language because Rep. Rubin, the bill sponsor, was ousted as chairman Tuesday during a political fracas with House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell.

“It is a disservice to the hard work that Rep. Rubin and (other organizations) did to open up these documents to public inspection,” Anstaett said. “Approval of this language will return Kansas to the position of ‘outlier’ on the issue of affidavits in support of arrest and search warrants.

“In fact, if this passes as amended, Kansas may as well no longer have an affidavit access statute,” he said.