A new bill granting access to law enforcement records pertaining to missing persons cases that are more than 25 years old would give some peace of mind to families and should be approved.
Senate Bill 200 is sponsored by Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City. The bill would amend the Kansas Open Records Act to require law enforcement agencies to grant public access to records in missing-person investigations if the person has been missing for 25 years or more. It would apply only to records in those cases that are at least 15 years old.
Members of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee advanced the bill to the full Senate with favorable recommendations and potential amendments, including a requirement that the records be produced within 30 days of the request and possibly expanding the bill to apply to all criminal cases and not just missing persons.
The impetus for the bill is the Leach family. On April 15, 1988, 18-year-old Randy leach, the only son of Harold and Alberta Leach, left the family’s home near Linwood in the family car and headed to a high school graduation party at a friend’s home. He never returned home, and the family car has never been found.
For years, the Leaches have questioned whether the Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Office and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation conducted a thorough investigation or followed through on all leads. But their search for answers has been difficult because records of criminal investigations are mostly exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act, no matter how old the records are or how long the case has been cold. The only way to unseal the records is to obtain a court order after convincing a judge that unsealing the records would be in the public interest, a process that can be expensive.
“It was the worst day of our lives, but it only gets worse because his case, to this very day, has never been solved,” Alberta Leach testified Wednesday before the Senate committee. “So every minute of every day, day after day, and year after year, we relive the worst day of our lives, over and over, for 29 years now, with no end.”
Law enforcement groups opposed the bill, arguing the release of the records could cause harm and embarrassment to individuals involved in the old cases and could open law enforcement agencies to libel and slander suits.
But those arguments don’t hold much merit when weighed against the rights of families like the Leaches. In fact, it would seem law enforcement, after being unable to solve a case for 25 years, would be eager to turn over to the family any and all information they have on the small chance that shining public light on such cases can help move them toward resolution.
Twenty-five years is more than enough time to protect a criminal investigation. Withholding records in such old cases causes families further pain and stirs suspicion that law enforcement has something to hide. Senate Bill 200 solves these problems and should be approved.