116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A Davenport man testified Tuesday that when he was headed west in 2017 on Interstate 80 to see his former girlfriend in Cedar Rapids, he never saw a state trooper following his motorcycle until he exited at West Liberty to take a break and smoke a cigarette.
Bryce Yakish, now 25, said he didn’t see Trooper Robert James Smith until he pulled off in an area on a frontage road, leading to a gas station. He then saw the lights and sirens on the trooper’s vehicle and Yakish motioned with his left hand — taking if off the clutch — where he was going to stop.
Yakish testified he got off his motorcycle and saw the trooper walking quickly toward him — with a gun pointed at Yakish.
“I was scared,” Yakish said of the Sept. 25, 2017, incident.
Smith is a former trooper charged with deprivation of rights under color of law — use of unreasonable force that causes bodily injury — and is on trial this week in federal court.
Smith is the first law enforcement officer charged in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa with this count in years, according to prosecutors. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office hasn’t charged an officer with using improper force since 2004, according to an Associated Press report in 2020.
Smith had been with the Iowa State Patrol for 29 years and retired in 2018 after an internal investigation of this traffic stop. The incident prompted review of other allegations against him.
Testimony is expected to wrap up Wednesday.
Yakish said he didn’t remember if Smith said anything to him before Smith hit him on the right front of his helmet, knocking him backward onto the motorcycle, which fell over with Yakish on top.
Then Smith pulled him up and took him down on the ground — face-down — and Smith put his knee on his neck and handcuffed his hands behind his back, Yakish testified.
Smith went through his backpack, which he thought could contain drugs or guns, after Yakish was placed in the squad car. Yakish said the backpack contained clothes and books. Also in the backpack was Yakish’s motorcycle license plates, which he hadn’t put on yet. He got the motorcycle earlier that month.
Yakish admitted to Smith he was speeding, but said he wasn’t eluding as Smith charged, saying he didn’t see Smith until he exited the interstate.
Yakish said the arrest resulted in him spending the night in jail, being strip-searched and fingerprinted. The motorcycle received $800 in damage.
Cory Goldensoph, Smith’s lawyer, asked Yakish why he told Smith he pulled over to get gas, noting that photos show the motorcycle’s gas gauge was full. Yakish said he usually did stop there to get gas when he traveled to see his girlfriend.
Goldensoph then pointed out that Yakish complained about neck pain but didn’t go to his regular chiropractor until two months later.
FBI Special Agent James McMillan said he found out about this case from the Cedar County sheriff, who said there were “issues” with the traffic stop. McMillan said when he saw the dashboard camera video from Smith’s squad car, he was “shocked” because the motorcyclist didn’t resist and complied.
The video, which was shown to the jury, showed Yakish getting off his motorcycle and raising his hands as Smith was coming at him with his gun pulled. Smith then with his left hand struck the right front of Yakish’s helmet with an “open palm strike” — like a punching action, but officers are trained to use this defensive tactic to prevent breaking hand bones.
But the defensive tactic is for someone resisting and not being compliant, McMillan said. Even if Yakish had been eluding, he was compliant when he stopped, he said.
Two of Smith’s former supervisors at the department 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 a compliant motorist.
In the video, Smith doesn’t activate his lights and sirens until he takes the West Liberty exit, which is necessary if an officer is in pursuit and for an eluding charge, said Capt. Randall Jones, former supervisor of Smith and now with the newly created Iowa State Fair Police Department.
Watching the video, Jones said Smith tells the dispatcher he’s not in a pursuit but is trying to catch up with the motorist.
Smith, in his report on the incident, said he “inadvertently” hit Yakish’s helmet as he tried to grab him. But Jones said that didn’t match with the video, which he said shows the amount of force Smith used as Yakish’s head snapped back upon impact.
If convicted, Smith faces up to 10 years in federal prison.
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