A timely step for transparency

Compromise provides access to affidavits

By The Mercury

Amid laws that eliminated teacher tenure and expressed defiance of the Affordable Care Act through the so-called Health Care Compact, there was plenty about the 2014 Legislature to find fault with.

But Kansas lawmakers deserve credit for approving legislation that allows citizens greater access to the probable cause documents with which police obtain arrest warrants and search warrants.

Both chambers gave unanimous approval to a compromise bill that in addition to giving Kansans greater access to the documents will improve transparency and will likely boost respect for law enforcement in the state.

Kansas had been the only state to maintain the secrecy of affidavits that police use to justify arrest warrants and search warrants. Even the federal government routinely released information that Kansas law enforcement agencies kept secret.

Under the new law, access to arrest warrants will be universal, though prosecutors have up to five days to seek redactions. Access to search warrants has been eased but will be available only to the owners of the property searched.

Advocates for keeping the affidavits sealed had included many of the state’s prosecutors, including, initially Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson. Their concerns included the possibility that the identities of undercover officers and informants could become known, unnecessarily putting their lives in jeopardy. Another concern of prosecutors was that the publicity that accompanies the release of information on these affidavits would affect the outcome of a trial.

Opponents of the old status quo, including the Mercury, contended that sealing the documents was in most instances unnecessary, reflected a distrust of the public that law enforcement officials serve, and worse, allowed unscrupulous law enforcement officers to abuse their authority.

The involvement of Mr. Wilkerson, as president of the Kansas County & District Attorneys Association, was integral to a compromise with the Kansas Press Association and the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government. The compromise that resulted was practical enough to attract overwhelming legislative support. Another key figure was state Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican, who championed the legislation.

Central to the compromise were provisions giving prosecutors five days to protect informants and undercover officers by redacting their names on the affidavits and limiting access to affidavits for search warrants to the pertinent property owners.

In the end, open government advocates won greater transparency and prosecutors ensured the safety of undercover officers and informants. That’s a positive outcome.

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