Judge Laura Viar cleared in Marion newspaper search warrant
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Left: Judge Laura Viar (Photo via Eight Judicial District Court); Right: Officers execute a search warrant of the home of Joan Meyer, owner of the Marion County Record. Meyer died the day after the search of cardiac arrest. (Screengrab via YouTube/Marion County Record).

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 story

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.

The raid

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.

Joan Meyer was captured on video during the search of her home.

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.

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