Public records case related to Burlington police shooting moves forward

Judge denies summary judgment, says she will hear case over whether law enforcement agencies should have released records about Burlington police shooting

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An administrative law judge has given the green light to a contested case alleging two Iowa law enforcement agencies broke open records law by not releasing records about a 2015 police shooting.

Judge Karen Doland on Tuesday denied a summary judgment request from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Burlington Police Department, agencies accused by the Iowa Public Information Board of violating Iowa’s Open Records law by keeping secret records about the Jan. 6, 2015, death of Autumn Steele, 34, of Burlington.

Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill, called to Steele’s house on a domestic abuse call, said he slipped in the snow while trying to shoot Steele’s attacking dog and accidentally shot Steele in her front yard. Police have released just 12 seconds of wobbly body camera video and a limited description of what happened.

Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper have asked for a more complete set of records from the closed case.

“The question in this case is whether DCI and Burlington may determine all information gathered in an investigation is ‘confidential’ because DCI and Burlington have determined that the information has been gathered for a ‘peace officers’ investigative report’,” Doland wrote. “There is not a case that definitively answers this question. The prosecutor is entitled to make a record in this case and have the issue decided.”

Randy Evans, executive director of Iowa’s Freedom of Information Council, said Wednesday he’s glad the case is moving forward.

“Transparency in the fatal shooting of an unarmed mother should not be the subject of such prolonged controversy,” he said.

The board voted in October 2016 to file orders alleging probable cause the DCI and Burlington police broke Iowa Code Chapter 22 by withholding investigative reports, body camera video and 911 calls. The contested case — only the second the board has filed since it started in 2013 — could have broad implications for the public’s access to law enforcement records, even in closed cases.

Jeff Peterzalek, deputy attorney general representing the DCI, said in a two-hour conference call Nov. 8 investigative records should be confidential because making them public would establish a precedent allowing the public to obtain more personal records, such as autopsy results and crime scene photos.

Peterzalek and Holly Corkery, representing the Burlington police, said the case is like the movie “Groundhog Day” because they say the same legal issues have been argued several times.

Mark McCormick, a former Iowa Supreme Court justice now prosecuting the case on behalf of the public information board, said Peterzalek and Corkery were using misstatements of previous court precedents. He said the public’s right to know more about the investigation should be balanced against potential privacy concerns.

The case now will proceed to contested hearing before Doland, who would make a recommendation of whether the law enforcement agencies violated public records law. The board may levy a civil penalty of up to $2,500 for a knowing violation.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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