A Kansas county prosecutor has directed state law enforcement agencies to return computers, phones and other equipment confiscated from a small-town U.S. newspaper, saying there was insufficient evidence of a crime to support a police raid condemned by free press advocates.
Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey said he was withdrawing a search warrant that led to the seizures from the Marion County Record in Marion, Kansas. He said he now believed the raid, which prompted a national outcry as a possible infringement of press freedoms, had not been justified by the evidence.
“Upon further review however, I have come to the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized,” Ensey said in a statement on Wednesday.
The warrant, authorized by a Marion County District Court judge, said there was probable cause to believe there was identity theft and unlawful acts concerning computers, according to an image of the warrant published by the Kansas Reflector news organization.
Requests for comment from the Marion County court were not returned.
In a story published on its website, the Record said the search of its office was related to a reporter verifying a drunken driving charge against a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Reuters could not independently verify the warrant’s contents or the paper’s story, and the Record could not be reached for comment.
Requests for comment from Ensey, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Marion Police Department were not immediately returned.
In addition to the Record’s newsroom, police searched the homes of the paper’s owners and Ruth Herbel, vice mayor of Marion.
Joan Meyer, the paper’s co-owner, died two days after Friday’s raid. In a statement, the newspaper said she was “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after illegal police raids on her home and the Marion County Record newspaper office.”
Explicit police searches on the press are rare in the United States, as news organizations are shielded from governmental intrusion under the free press protections afforded by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Claire Regan, president for the Society of Professional Journalists, said she was shocked when she heard about the search of the paper’s newsroom.
“The worst outcome from this raid last Friday was that the flow of information was stopped and that just can’t happen, especially in a small town,” she said.
Marion, about 50 miles northeast of Wichita, Kansas, has a population of 2,000.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said in a statement that it would carry on with an independent probe into whether the Record violated the business owner’s privacy.