116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A former state trooper charged with using unreasonable force during a 2017 traffic stop testified Wednesday he was concerned the Davenport motorcyclist attempting to flee because of his speed, that his motorcycle had no plates, and how and where the cyclist finally pulled over.
Robert James Smith, who was terminated from the Iowa State Patrol following an internal investigation and allowed to retire in 2018, said the driver of the motorcycle, Bryce Yakish, then 20, seemed to be fleeing from him Sept. 25, 2017, after he exited Interstate 80 at West Liberty.
Yakish ran a stop sign and crossed the overpass as if he might get back on the highway, Smith said.
Smith said he viewed the running of the stop sign as Yakish continuing the chase. But then Yakish turned into the driveway of a gas station.
Smith admitted his adrenaline was “going a little” after the 120 mph-plus pursuit. He said it was unexpected that the motorcycle then veered left, which Smith took as Yakish was going to drive around his vehicle.
Smith got out of his vehicle and approached Yakish with his gun drawn because he had safety concerns.
“It wasn’t a decision. It was a reaction,” Smith testified.
The prosecution wrapped up its case in U.S. District Court on Wednesday with a use-of-force expert witness who said Smith’s actions were not reasonable in this situation because Yakish was compliant after he stopped the motorcycle.
Smith’s supervisors testified Tuesday that Smith didn’t follow policies and used unreasonable force by pointing his gun at Yakish and striking him with his hand.
The defense expert who testified Wednesday said Smith’s use of force was “objectively reasonable to maintain or gain control of an out-of-control“ situation.
Smith is charged with deprivation of rights under color of law — use of unreasonable force that causes bodily injury. Smith is the first law enforcement officer charged in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa with this crime in years, according to prosecutors.
The defense will continue its case Thursday. Closing arguments will follow, and the jury will likely start deliberations.
Smith, if convicted, faces up to 10 years in federal prison.
Smith, who is now a semi-trailer truck driver, said he was parked in the I-80 median about 3 miles from the West Liberty exit, monitoring traffic that evening when Yakish passed him at a high rate of speed.
He said he had read a department “intelligence report” that indicated a similar “bullet-style” motorcycle with no license plate had been involved in three “incidents.”
Smith said he didn’t immediately pull out to follow Yakish because he had to wait for two cars to pass so he was catching up with the motorcycle and didn’t immediately activate his lights and sirens.
He said it was unusual for a driver to speed up after passing a trooper running radar, so it raised his suspicions.
Smith said he reached speeds of 145 to 150 mph to catch up with Yakish. When he reached Yakish, the cyclist was taking the exit, and Smith at that point activated his lights and siren. Yakish stopped in the driveway of the gas station.
The traffic stop wasn’t normal, and Yakish was in control — “dictating,” Smith said. He was concerned about Yakish’s backpack, which could have contained drugs or guns. Smith’s “goal” was to apprehend Yakish and secure him with handcuffs.
Smith said he didn’t know who Yakish was at the time and pointed his gun at Yakish because he thought he might run away after getting off his motorcycle.
Smith said he didn’t use an open palm strike — like a punching action, which officers are trained to use as a defensive tactic to prevent breaking hand bones. He was trying to grab Yakish, but he came into “contact” with his helmet and then Yakish fell back over his motorcycle, knocking it down.
The video, which was shown to the jury Tuesday and Wednesday, showed Yakish getting off his motorcycle and raising his hands as Smith was coming at him with his gun pulled. Smith stuck Yakish’s helmet with his left hand while holding the gun in his right hand.
Smith’s supervisors at the department testified Tuesday that this defensive tactic is for someone resisting arrest and not being compliant. They viewed Yakish as being compliant.
Smith admitted he didn’t give any verbal commands, as he was trained to do, because he may have been holding his breath or it was hard for him to breathe during the stressful encounter. He said he “could have done a lot better at the time.”
After the arrest, Smith said Yakish wasn’t truthful about why his license plate wasn’t displayed. The plates were in his backpack and had fasteners, which Yakish said he didn’t have.
Yakish was charged with eluding because Smith said he thought he had activated his lights and sirens for much longer than he actually did. Yakish pleaded guilty to reckless driving and a speeding violation, Smith said.
Smith said he wasn’t trying to deceive anyone with his incident report, which didn’t match what happened in the video, but it was his perception of what happened that night.
On cross-examination, Smith admitted he was aware of departmental pursuit and use of force policies. He also admitted that he didn’t fill out the portion on the incident report to indicate use of force.
Smith said drawing a weapon without “active resistance” isn’t use of force. Smith didn’t think Yakish was compliant but that he wasn’t “actively resistant.”
He was asked why he didn’t alter the charge after seeing the video and realized he didn’t have enough to charge Yakish with aggravated eluding.
Smith said he still believed there was enough for “standard” eluding, and it was up to the county attorney to make the ultimate charging decision. He viewed his complaint as inaccurate, not perjury.
Smith also admitted to being terminated for violations of use of force and truthfulness and timeliness of reports.
Yakish later sued the department and Smith, and the Iowa State Appeal Board awarded him a $225,000 settlement in March 2021.
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