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Ex-trooper sentenced to probation for using excessive force on motorcyclist
Former Iowa State Patrol officer intentionally struck man out of frustration over speeding
CEDAR RAPIDS — A former state trooper was sentenced last week to two years’ probation and a $7,500 fine for intentionally striking a motorcyclist in the face and knocking him backward during a 2017 traffic stop in West Liberty.
Robert James Smith, 58, of Durant, pleaded guilty in September to deprivation of rights under the color of law. He originally was charged with using unreasonable force, but his federal trial was declared a mistrial last July after a jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict. Smith then pleaded guilty to the lesser charge.
He faced up to one year in prison, but the prosecution and defense jointly recommended two years of probation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Will Ripley, in a sentencing document, said the evidence showed that in the moments leading up to the incident, Smith had become “increasingly frustrated” with what he said was speeding and non-compliance by motorcyclist Bryce Yakish, then 20, of Davenport.
When he reached Yakish, who had stopped and was standing next to his motorcycle, Smith struck him in the chin, Ripley said. Afterward, Smith “compounded his crime by lying about it” in his report and testifying that he didn’t strike Yakish. He said it was inadvertent contact while trying to grab Yakish’s shoulder.
“Holding a law enforcement officer accountable for a crime committed while wearing a uniform holding the power that comes with it promotes respect for the law,” Ripley said in the sentencing document.
This conviction sends a strong message to both law enforcement officers and the public that the law restrains both, and “any violation by either can, and will, be prosecuted,” Ripley added.
In the plea, Smith admitted that on Sept. 25, 2017, he attempted to catch up with a motorcycle driven by Yakish, who was traveling at 84 mph westbound on Interstate 80. Yakish eventually exited and crossed the interstate southbound, and Smith turned on the overhead lights and siren of his patrol vehicle. Yakish pulled into the entrance of the West Liberty Travel Plaza.
Yakish stopped and was getting off his motorcycle as Smith got out of his vehicle and quickly approached him, he admitted in the plea. Yakish was standing next to his motorcycle and had his hands in the air when Smith hit Yakish in the chin area with an open hand palm strike. Yakish was wearing a helmet with a face mask, but the force of the strike caused Yakish to fall backward over his motorcycle.
Smith pulled Yakish up off the motorcycle and then put him face down on the ground and knelt on Yakish’s shoulder/neck area until he handcuffed him, the plea stated.
In the plea, Smith admitted he struck Yakish willfully and did so with a “bad purpose or improper motive to disobey or disregard the law, specifically intending to deprive (Yakish) of the right to be free from unreasonable force.”
Smith also admitted that he wrote a report soon afterward and asserted the strike to Yakish was not intentional. He said he intended to “take a hold of his shoulder but came into contact with the front side of his helmet.”
Smith testified twice that the contact wasn’t intentional — on Sept. 8, 2020, during a civil trial and during his criminal trial July 20 — both times under oath, according to the plea. Smith admitted in the plea that the strike was intentional.
The former trooper is the first law enforcement officer charged in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa in years, according to prosecutors.
Smith was terminated from the Iowa State Patrol after an internal investigation of the arrest and allowed to retire in 2018, according to testimony.
A video of the incident was shown to the jury throughout the trial.
Smith said he got out of his vehicle and approached Yakish with his gun drawn because he had safety concerns. He admitted he didn’t give any commands as he approached.
During the trial, Smith’s former supervisors, who still are with the Iowa State Patrol, testified they reviewed his report and dashcam video and took it up the command chain because Smith was holding his handgun and used an open palm strike on a compliant motorist.
Yakish sued the department and Smith for assaulting and falsely arresting him. The Iowa State Appeal Board awarded him a $225,000 settlement in March 2021.
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