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A judge with a history of driving while intoxicated has been cleared of conduct charges for signing a warrant in what was described as a Gestapo-style raid on the homes of journalists.
Last August, law enforcement led what was called an “unprecedented raid” of the offices of the Marion County Record, the newspaper’s reporters, and the home of Eric Meyer and his mother and Joan Meyer, the paper’s owners. The sweeping search garnered national attention not only for its potential First Amendment violations, but also because it was said to have contributed to the death of one of the paper’s owners.
The Marion County Record is a small local newspaper in Marion, Kansas that was co-owned by 98-year-old Joan Meyer and her son Eric Meyer, who was also the newspaper’s publisher.
The raid came on the heels of the Record’s having published a story about local restaurateur Kari Newell. The piece said that a confidential source, later identified as Pam Maag, reported that “a local caterer” had been convicted of drunk driving and continued to drive her vehicle without a valid driver’s license — all while she was in the process of applying for a liquor license for her restaurant. Reporters understood the tip to relate to Newell.
Eric Meyer later said the paper attempted to verify the information about Newell, as they suspected it had come from Newell’s husband who had recently filed for divorce. Eric Meyer did not immediately publish the story and instead alerted the police.
Reporter Phyllis Zorn, the person who initially received the tip about Newell, used a public website to look into Newell’s DUI and driving record. Ultimately, Zorn confirmed Newell had lost her driver’s license due to a DUI.
Police notified Newell about the allegations against her, and Newell later appeared at a city council meeting and publicly accused the newspaper of illegally obtaining sensitive documents. Eric Meyer has maintained that Maag, the source of the information, provided Newell’s driver’s license number and date of birth which Zorn later used to research records.
After Newell’s public comments, the newspaper published a piece that included the details of Maag’s statements as well as Newell’s DUI and lost license.
On Aug. 11, just after the Marion County Record published the story about Newell, the city’s entire police department descended on the Meyers’ home and the newspaper’s offices. Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar had signed a search warrant authorizing officers to conduct a sweeping seizure of cellphones, computers, and equipment. As a result, the newspaper’s daily publication was seriously threatened.
The search was done as part of an investigation of whether Eric Meyer or Zorn had broken the law by researching Newell’s driving record. Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody signed an affidavit prior to the search indicating that Zorn either impersonated Newell or lied about her in order to retrieve records.
Free press advocates and news organizations immediately condemned the search as a violation of the First Amendment. After the raid, Cody was suspended by Marion Mayor Dave Mayfield.
An irate Joan Meyer yelled, “Don’t you touch any of that stuff. This is my house!” as police rifled through her belongings.
“Does your mother love you? Do you love your mother?,” she demanded as she pushed past police. “You’re an a—–, police chief. You’re the chief? Oh, God. Get out of my house. You’re [unclear]. Get out. Stand outside. You can stand outside that door and still see him. I don’t want you in my house.”
Joan Meyer collapsed and died the next day of cardiac arrest.
At the time, Eric Meyer said about the raid, “This is the jackboot Nazis, this is the Gestapo, this is Vladimir Putin. This is the tactics of a totalitarian regime.”
Kansas House Minority Leader Vic Miller said there was no doubt in his mind that the stress of the search contributed to Meyer’s death, adding, “But the chilling effect, the absolutely chilling effect that this can have on the rest of our press is intolerable.”
Viar’s warrant came under scrutiny for its potential violation of 42 U.S. Code § 2000aa, the Privacy Protection Act, a federal law that prohibits searches and seizures of materials from journalists. Typically, under the statute, law enforcement agencies are required to obtain a subpoena to obtain materials from media sources. The purpose of the law is to ensure an additional procedural hurdle before law enforcement invades the privacy of a newsroom so as to protect First Amendment guarantees.
Topeka resident Keri Strahler filed a complaint against Viar with the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct on Sept. 1 alleging that Viar violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by issuing an unconstitutional warrant.
The Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct sent a letter to Strahler Wednesday saying that after it “extensively discussed” the allegations against Viar, it chose to dismiss the complaint. The Commission said that “the facts and circumstances were not sufficient to conclude that the issuance of the warrant crossed the line of incompetence,” but qualified that the finding did not mean the Commission found the warrant to be reasonable or legally appropriate.
Viar was selected as a magistrate judge in the Eighth Judicial District of Kansas in late 2022, following the retirement of her predecessor. Viar has herself had multiple run-ins with law enforcement related to driving and alcohol consumption.
The judge was arrested twice in 2012 — once on Jan. 25 in Coffey County and again on Aug. 6 in Morris County. At the time, Viar’s used the last name Allen and was working as the Morris County Attorney.
After the first arrest, Viar was reportedly charged with DUI then placed in a diversion agreement. The terms of that agreement were later extended by six months when Viar reportedly refused to get an alcohol and drug evaluation.
Months later, and while she was still a member of the Morris County Anti-Drug Task Force, Viar was arrested again, this time after driving a judge’s vehicle crashing into a shed near a football field.
Even after her run-ins with the law, Viar was re-elected as county prosecutor several times.
Law&Crime did not immediately receive a response to requests for comment.