Reopen Kansas criminal records

Law now erects costly, needless barriers

By The Mercury

There’s no reason to question the Kansas Legislature’s motives a generation ago when, after a Kansas newspaper published the names of two individuals who were sought by police using warrants that had not been served, lawmakers closed virtually all criminal records in the state. Lawmakers allowed records to be opened only on a judge’s order.

Legislators understandably sought to protect the rights of the accused as well as the identities of confidential informants and police investigative techniques. But if lawmakers meant well, they went too far. They closed records that are open in most, if not all, other states as well as the federal government, and in the process erected expensive and unnecessary barriers for citizens seeking pertinent information about crimes and police investigations.

Among records now closed in Kansas and that are generally open in other states are narratives of incident reports — the information leading up to and stemming from incidents; police investigations, which elsewhere generally become open to the public when prosecutors give files to the defense; and affidavits for search and arrest warrants.

These items should be readily available to the public in Kansas, and might well be if a Republican legislator from Shawnee has his way. Rep. John Rubin,  a former federal administrative law judge, told the Kansas City Star that such records should be open “unless law enforcement can provide a justifiable reason to keep records closed or sealed to protect an ongoing investigation for prosecution. That is what I’m used to at the federal level. I’m surprised that is not the principle we are operating from in the state of Kansas.”

Fortunately. Rep. Rubin is in a position to bring about change. He’s a member of the House Judiciary Committee and chair of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. He said he plans to hold hearings on the matter.

That’s good. The law ought to be changed. Yes, the rights of the accused need to be protected, as should information that would compromise investigations, but much more information than is necessary is kept from the public. There’s little reason Kansas shouldn’t rejoin other states and the federal government in tipping the scales toward greater openness in criminal records.

In the interim, Kansas judges might consider following the example of judges in Lyon County. There, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary, judges keep affidavits open.

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