Government

Burlington tries to stop government watchdog

City resists attempt to unveil police video behind shooting

Autumn Steele’s parents, Gina and Mark Colbert, are photographed in 2015 with her dog, Sammy. An officer told investigators he was forced to shoot because the dog attacked him, but that he accidentally hit Steele. (Melissa Golden/Washington Post)
Autumn Steele’s parents, Gina and Mark Colbert, are photographed in 2015 with her dog, Sammy. An officer told investigators he was forced to shoot because the dog attacked him, but that he accidentally hit Steele. (Melissa Golden/Washington Post)
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BURLINGTON — Attorneys representing the city of Burlington said in court documents it’s unlikely a $2 million settlement tentatively reached last month in the wrongful death lawsuit over a 2015 fatal police shooting can be finalized if an Iowa watchdog group is allowed to intervene.

Martha Shaff, a Davenport attorney representing Burlington and Officer Jesse Hill, said in documents filed recently in U.S. District Court in Davenport that the Iowa Freedom of Information Council has no standing to inject itself into the lawsuit filed by the estate of 34-year-old Autumn Steele, who was shot and killed by Hill during a domestic disturbance.

Members of Steele’s family, which filed the federal lawsuit in November 2016, are not opposed to the FOI council’s decision to intervene in the lawsuit in an to attempt to have the documents unsealed.

However, Shaff said the council’s motion to intervene is without merit and should be denied.

“There is no federal statute providing intervenors (FOI) with an unconditional right to intervene to seek copies of judicial records filed under seal and intervenors do not have any property interests in the monetary proceeds at issue between the plaintiffs and defendants,” she wrote.

She also said in her motion that if the court unseals documents requested by the council it could possibly cancel the proposed $2 settlement and force the case to trial, which was scheduled to begin Aug. 20.

“Intervention at this late stage will cause undue delay and prejudice the plaintiffs and defendants, who have settled their litigation disputes,” Shaff wrote. “A full dismissal of this action was agreed to as a material element of the parties’ settlement and can not be obtained if intervention is allowed.”

Last month, David O’Brien, a Cedar Rapids attorney who represents the Steeles, announced the parties had reached a settlement. His announcement prompted the Freedom of Information Council into action.

Randy Evans, the executive director of the FOI Council, said at the time of the filing his organization is seeking to be allowed to intervene because the council was disturbed by the federal court’s decision to seal numerous documents.

“The FOI Council didn’t want to run the risk of the settlement being finalized and the case closed and the important facts being sealed from public view,” Evans said. “ ... The fundamental issue is these documents being sealed by the court. The public is being cut off from access to the motions and arguments ... The sealing of the records prevents the public the right to look at these documents ... They need to be unsealed.”

The tentative settlement requires the city of Burlington to pay $2 million in damages to Gabriel Steele, Autumn Steele’s husband; her two young sons, who were 3 and 6 years old at the time of her death; and her mother, Gina Colbert. The defendants are the city of Burlington and officer Jesse Hill.

Court officials said the case cannot be finalized until U.S. Senior District Judge James Grizner does so. A date when he will announce his decision has not been set.

A hearing date on Evans’ motion to intervene has not been set in federal court in Davenport.

Shaff also argued the FOI Council has other avenues it can pursue in seeking to acquire information contained in the sealed court documents.

“There is an alternative, legislatively-created process for intervenors to seek these types of documents and material from the city of Burlington through open records requests and through the Iowa Public Information Board if the request is wrongfully denied,” she wrote.

After Steele was shot and killed by Hill, the Steele family and The Hawk Eye filed separate complaints with IPIB requesting police body camera videos, squad car dashboard camera videos, 911 calls and investigative files about the shooting.

However, Burlington police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation denied the requests, saying the materials were not public records but investigative files that did not have to be released to the public.

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Despite the tentative settlement, the Steele family has continued to pursue, along with The Hawk Eye, the release of those documents through the IPIB.

An evidentiary hearing on the IPIB complaints is scheduled for July 20 before Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland, who will then turn over her finding of facts and conclusions of law to the nine-member IPIB for a final decision.

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