Public Safety

Public information board denies DCI appeal, says contested case should proceed

Case disputes whether DCI and Burlington Police should release more information about Autumn Steele's death

The Iowa Public Information Board voted unanimously Thursday to deny an appeal by two Iowa law enforcement agencies trying to sidestep an administrative law judge who wouldn’t dismiss records violation charges against them last month.

Barring further appeals, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Burlington Police Department are headed for a contested case hearing over whether the agencies violated Iowa’s Open Records law by not releasing all the records from the 2015 fatal shooting of Autumn Steele, 34, of Burlington, by Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill.

“From the beginning, this case has involved the issue of whether the Division of Criminal Investigation with regard to a public records request complied with the law,” Jeff Peterzalek, an assistant Iowa Attorney General representing the DCI told the board Thursday.

Peterzalek and Holly Corkery, an attorney for the Burlington Police, asked the board for an interlocutory appeal, saying Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland’s Dec. 5 decision not to grant summary judgment in the case was “fatally flawed.”

Peterzalek suggested during the meeting Thursday the board could decide the legal issues in the case without having a contested case hearing before Doland.

Mark McCormick, a former Iowa Supreme Court justice who is prosecuting this case for the board, saw Peterzalek’s and Corkery’s “piecemeal approach” was contrary to how the system is supposed to work. “It would be better to bring something to the court that has been decided by the administrative law judge,” McCormick said.

The contested case could have broad implications for the public’s access to law enforcement records, including body camera video, dash camera video and 911 call recordings.

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The law enforcement agencies say Iowa Code Chapter 22.7(5) provides for “investigative reports” to be kept secret, even after an investigation is concluded. Open records advocates argue those records should be public unless release will hurt an ongoing investigation.

Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk Eye Newspaper filed complaints with the board in 2015 saying the law enforcement agencies are withholding important information about the January 2015 shooting.

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.

The board, created in 2012 to enforce Iowa’s Open Records and Open Meetings laws, may levy civil penalties of up to $2,500 for knowing violations.

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

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