Transparency protects public

Imagination and playing pretend are valuable tools for children, so why should we abandon them as adults? Picture for a moment a mid-April morning, with dew on the ground instead of snow. This sounds pretty good right about now, right? You’re getting the children ready for school when there’s a knock at the door. You answer the door to find several police officers in SWAT-style gear. Imagine you and your family, including two children, are detained by officers armed with assault rifles while police search your home for drugs.

You know there aren’t any drugs in the house. And the police learn that for themselves after a fruitless search that lasts hours. How do you imagine you and your family would feel? Would “traumatized” be a fair estimate? Or humiliated?

Now imagine that you press the police to know why they were so sure you and your family had drugs, but they won’t tell you, and they don’t have to because the court documents they filed to get a search warrant are sealed by default in Kansas.

That was the very real scenario for Robert and Adlynn Harte of Leawood. When they finally received the probable cause affidavit for the search warrant for their home, they learned that their home was searched because they shopped at a store for indoor gardening equipment and because police found discarded tea leaves in their trash.

Let’s imagine another situation. This one is more speculative, I promise. Imagine if a parent of a teenager was arrested on a whole slew of drug-related charges, including possession with intent to sell. You would never know what specifically that person was accused of, unless the case went to trial, something that doesn’t happen in the vast majority of criminal cases. Maybe they really were dealing drugs. Or maybe they were an inattentive parent to a teenager who made some bad choices. These are very different things that could be charged the same way.

These are the kinds of confusion and ambiguity that would be immediately cleared up if Kansas did the sensible thing and made probable cause affidavits open records, as almost every other state does. Transparency protects the accused from speculation, and it helps hold officials accountable.

The legislature has taken a first step in the right direction. House Bill 2555 was introduced last week by Rep. John Rubin, a Republican from Shawnee, and it would make probable cause affidavits an open record.

In another issue of government transparency and accountability, the legislature is considering HB 2346, which would create a two-person unit in the attorney general’s office to investigate Kansas Open Meetings Act and Kansas Open Records Act complaints. It’s a good step, but it wouldn’t be needed if all levels of government, from city hall to the governor’s mansion, took open records and open meetings requirements seriously.

— ADAM STEWART

 

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