Judge’s words bewildering

Public, media inseparable on access issues

By The Mercury

“I think I need to keep in mind the public’s right to know, not necessarily the individual media.”

So said Labette County District Judge Robert Fleming last week in denying a request from the Parsons Sun to review affidavits for search warrants and the probable cause affidavit used to arrest a suspect in a quadruple murder case.

That the judge could separate the public and a media outlet such as the Parsons Sun, the local newspaper covering the case, is bewildering. That right to know includes the entire public, including media representatives. In fact that law does not separate the media’s right to know from the public’s right to know. They are one and the same.

The Parsons Sun, as well as other news organizations covering the case, acts on the public’s behalf in such instances. Surely the judge knows better.

Unfortunately, insulting the public, as Judge Fleming did with his stunning statement, was not, in our view, his only mistake with regard to the affidavits.

He should also have released — at least in redacted form — the affidavits the newspaper requested access to. The defendant in this case is David C. Bennett Jr., 22. He is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths in November 2013 of Cami Umbarger and her three children. He also is accused of rape and making criminal threats.

Judge Fleming said Mr. Bennett’s file contains two probable cause affidavits, one in November 2013 and one a month later. More than two dozen search warrants also were issued, the first in November 2013 and the most recent last May. All of the documents were filed before the Kansas Legislature’s law increasing access to search and probable cause warrants took effect.

With regard to public access, that is a technicality. Effective July 1, these documents generally can be released after they are reviewed by attorneys. Many states, in fact, release the affidavits when charges are filed.

Before the law was changed, Kansas — and only Kansas among the 50 states — allowed search warrants and probable cause warrants to be closed records. However, a judge could open them if he or she thought doing so was in the public interest and did not reveal either law enforcement investigative techniques or confidential information.

The current law, which the Legislature overwhelmingly approved, carries a strong presumption of openness with regard to the affidavits — to the entire public, including the media.

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