I want the guiltiest criminal and most innocent person treated in the same way

For a state that was once a stronghold of the Populist Party, Kansas allows a lot of secrecy in police, court and government records.

Compared to federal courts and those in states all around us, Kansas protects far too much information as confidential. Oklahoma’s Open Records Act allows for about 12 exemptions for information allowed to be kept confidential. Student records, personnel files and other obvious exceptions are on the short list.

Kansas exempts 42 different types of information, according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition. (See the entire Kansas Open Records Act here: http://kslegislature.org/li/b2013_14/statute/045_000_0000_chapter/045_002_0000_article/045_002_0021_section/045_002_0021_k/)

But don’t worry, if you can wait 70 years, you can have access to any of these files.

I wish I were kidding.

I’m a huge supporter of law enforcement everywhere. But open records don’t interfere with law enforcement doing a good job. Do you really want to compare arrest and imprisonment records with Texas and Oklahoma?

I think there might be a chilling effect in the opposite direction. When people and the press don’t have access to accurate information, they are more likely to believe fanciful tales from defendants and their attorneys in court.

“Trust me” is always a bad policy. Open records give people confidence that the police and court system is operating in a fair way regardless of who the police officer is. I trust my local officers, but can I trust the ones in another community? I don’t know.

Open records ensure that the rights we have as Americans are respected in every situation. I want the guiltiest criminal and most innocent person treated in the same way.

The Kansas Press Association is pushing for the fourth time in nine sessions to open one important court file to public view. A couple from Leawood recently put a human face on just what problems closed records – especially probable cause affidavits upon which arrest and search warrants are often based – can cause.

The couple was subjected to a home invasion by a Johnson County SWAT team based on just such a document. But the agents who searched their home found nothing.

The travesty is the Hartes couldn’t even find out why they were targeted for such an investigation.

They tried for more than a year before they finally learned that their home was searched because officers found remnants of brewed tea that was mistakenly believed to be marijuana stems and leaves.

If it can happen to them, it can happen to you. Mistakes happen everywhere. But only in Kansas are the reasons for the mistakes protected by sealed court documents. In every other state and in federal courts, those affidavits are available after a simple request and, in most places, they cost nothing to obtain.

In Kansas, the Hartes spent tens of thousands of dollars and more than a year to get them.

Protecting records doesn’t favor law enforcement. It favors bad law enforcement.

Open records build trust. We can do better. Let your legislators know that you want Kansas to expand the openness of our court and police records.

Kent Bush is the publisher of the Butler County Times Gazette and can be reached at: kbush@butlercountytimesgazette.com