Earlier this month, after a local restaurant owner accused the Marion County Record of illegally accessing information about her, the Marion police chief obtained warrants to search the newspaper’s offices and the home of its publisher, as well as the home of a City Council member who also accessed the driver’s license database.
The police chief led the Aug. 11 raids and said in the affidavits used to obtain the warrants that he had probable cause to believe that the newspaper and the City Council member had violated state laws against identity theft or computer crimes.
Both the City Council member and the newspaper have said they received a copy of the document about the status of the restaurant owner’s license without soliciting it. The document disclosed the restaurant’s license number and her date of birth, information required to check the status of a person’s license online and gain access to a more complete driving record. The police chief maintains they broke state laws to do that, while the newspaper and Herbel’s attorneys say they didn’t.
The raid on the Record put it and its hometown of about 1,900 residents in the center of a debate about press freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Kansas’ Bill of Rights. It also exposed divisions in the town over local politics and the newspaper’s coverage of the community and put an intense spotlight on Police Chief Gideon Cody.
Department of Revenue spokesperson Zack Denney said it’s legal to access the driver’s license database online using information obtained independently. The department’s Division of Vehicles issues licenses.
“That’s legal,” he said. “The website is public facing, and anyone can use it.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation continues to probe the newspaper’s actions. The KBI reports to state Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican, while the Department of Revenue is under Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s authority.