116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - A man arrested by Iowa City police in a case condemned by a federal judge as 'walking while Black” has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the city, Johnson County, the arresting officers and an assistant county attorney involved in the arrest.
'I am seeking some peace of mind, as well as justice,” said Chris Kelly, the plaintiff in the complaint. 'My mind can't get over what happened, how they came after me just because they felt like it. 'They didn't care about the law, didn't care about my rights. They were so sure they would just get away with it. And they almost did.”
Kelly's civil rights complaint and an Aug. 20, 2020, ruling on a motion to suppress written by federal Judge Stephanie Rose of the Southern District of Iowa lays out the allegations in the case.
Records state that on Dec. 26, 2019, Assistant Johnson County Attorney Jude Pannell was shopping near the Waterfront Hy-Vee, 1720 Waterfront Dr., when he called Iowa City police officer Travis Neeld - who was nearby on an unrelated call - about suspicious behavior.
Pannell told police he thought he recognized Kelly from an earlier case and saw a bulge in his pocket Pannell speculated was a gun.
'There is no evidence the prosecutor witnessed Kelly engage in any illegal acts or saw the contents of his coat pockets,” the suppression ruling states.
Neeld relayed Pannell's observation to other police officers in the area. A few minutes later, officer Niles Mercer saw Kelly walk from a gas station with a bag of food. As Kelly walked, officers discussed Kelly's behavior and stopped him for jaywalking.
Kelly apologized, records state. Kelly began to leave, but Neeld asked for his identification. After initially giving the name Marcus, Kelly was identified by an EBT card showing his real name.
Neeld asked dispatch for a background check on 'Christopher Kelly,” who had an active warrant for his arrest. However, Chris Kelly did not.
Neeld did not confirm he was speaking with the right Kelly and continued to 'lecture Kelly about the sins of jaywalking,” the suppression ruling states.
Authorities said Kelly attempted to leave, and other officers arrived. Kelly was ordered to put his hands on his head because he might have a warrant, which Kelly denied. Police then 'seized Kelly, violently throwing him to the ground and tasing him twice,” records state.
A search of Kelly's pockets revealed a loaded pistol and a small glass jar of marijuana. He was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. However, in her August ruling, Rose suppressed the evidence in the case.
'This is a story of ‘walking while Black,' ... law enforcement lacked any objective basis for suspecting criminal wrongdoing,” Rose wrote. 'Kelly was not jaywalking and neither the prosecutor nor the arresting officers had any reasonable grounds to suspect the object in his pocket was a gun as opposed to some other personal item.”
The charges against Kelly were dismissed but not before he spent eight months in the Muscatine County Jail.
According to a news release announcing the civil rights complaint, Kelly has struggled to find work and housing since his release and has been homeless at times.
'He is still plagued by stress, depression, anger and humiliation linked to the trauma of the incident,” the news release stated. 'Iowa City and Johnson County have refused to discuss settlement or reconciliation.”
The lawsuit said Kelly was subjected to 'the Treatment” in which officers illegally stop Black people and then escalate the encounter. It also contends police and Pannell hid conflicts of interest with neither party disclosing that Pannell initiated the encounter with Kelly.
The 12 counts in Kelly's lawsuit include unlawful stop and seizure; use of excessive force; racial profiling and discrimination; coverup and malicious prosecution; assault and battery; false arrest and imprisonment; and others. Kelly is seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.
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