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Iowa Supreme Court has given Autumn Steele's family another chance to gain full access to the 911 call and police video of the incident in which Steele was fatally shot by police in 2015 outside her Burlington home.
In an opinion released Thursday, the state Supreme Court said Adam Klein, the lawyer who originally sought the records on behalf of the Steeles, has legal standing to take the case to the District Court, despite the Iowa Public Information Board deciding in 2019 law enforcement agencies could keep records of the police shooting secret from the public.
“Today’s ruling says a complainant to the Iowa Public Information Board does not have to take the ruling as the last word,” said Michael Giudicessi, a Des Moines lawyer with expertise in open records law. “It gives both the Public Information Board and a complainant the right give the courts a second look.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which filed the 2019 lawsuit that went to the state Supreme Court, issued this statement Thursday:
“This is a case about law enforcement's yearslong effort to withhold records regarding the tragic, fatal police shooting of Autumn Steele, an unarmed woman standing just feet away from her child,” Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa’s legal director, said.
“Beyond that important result — allowing our client to seek any so-far unreleased bodycam, dashcam, and 911 records regarding the shooting — the broader ruling is vital to ensuring access to public records, and preservation of due process, for Iowans who file complaints with the Board.”
The high court decision comes nearly seven years after Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill accidentally shot Steele after responding to a domestic disturbance at her house Jan. 6, 2015.
Hill found Steele and her husband, Gabriel Steele, arguing in the yard. As Hill tried to stop Autumn Steele from striking her husband, the family dog bit Hill's leg, Hill told investigators after the shooting. Hill fired his weapon twice, but slipped in the snow and hit Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two boys, killing her. No criminal charges were filed against Hill and he returned to duty.
Steele's family and the Burlington Hawk-Eye newspaper filed complaints with the public information board after the Division of Criminal Investigation and Burlington Police Department refused to release body camera video, a 911 recording, squad car dashboard camera video and other records. The law enforcement agencies said they complied with the law by releasing basic facts.
After a four-year legal battle, the Public Information Board decided Feb. 21, 2019, to overrule an administrative law judge’s decision and dismiss the complaints against the DCI and the Burlington police, saying the agencies did not break Iowa’s open records law by keeping secret Hill’s body camera video and other records.
The Supreme court said Thursday the board’s decision doesn’t prevent the District Court from ruling on the same matters later. “In short, the District Court always has the authority to decide what the law requires in a particular case,” the opinion states.
If the court had ruled otherwise, it would have meant Public Information Board decisions may not be reviewed in court, Giudicessi said.
Appealing a Public Information Board decision to the courts is a much narrower review than if a thwarted record seeker had sued the records custodian in the first place, he said. A direct lawsuit also is likely faster than first going through the board, considering this case likely will take another year to be resolved.
“This is more of an administrative procedure case than it is a public records case,” Giudicessi said. “But had they ruled otherwise,” the quest for records in the Steele case “would be over.”
The court found Klein may seek only judicial review of release of the 911 call, body camera footage and police vehicle footage and may not pursue records already made public.
The body camera video was released to the public by the family after the 2018 settlement of a wrongful-death lawsuit. The city of Burlington agreed to pay $2 million in damages to Gabriel Steele, the Steeles’ two young sons, who were 3 and 6 years old at the time of her death; and Autumn Steele’s mother, Gina Colbert.
Iowa lawmakers formed the Public Information Board in 2012 after years of lobbying by open-government advocates, including The Gazette and other media outlets. The group's purpose is to enforce chapters 21 and 22 of Iowa Code, which deal with open meetings and open records.
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