Government

DCI appeals ruling it broke Iowa public records law

Public Records Board has authority to affirm, reverse or modify administrative law judge's Oct. 5 decision

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The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has asked the Iowa Public Information Board to reverse an Oct. 5 decision finding two Iowa law enforcement agencies broke public records law by keeping secret records about a 2015 fatal shooting by a Burlington police officer.

Jeff Peterzalek, an assistant Iowa Attorney General representing the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), on Friday appealed the ruling of Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland, saying Doland “misconstrues and/or ignores” court precedents about what records may be part of a confidential investigative file.

“The proposed decision is contrary to the express language of Iowa Code Section 22.7(5), decades of Iowa Supreme Court authority, as well as authority from the Iowa Court of Appeals, Iowa District Courts and this Board’s own past precedent,” Peterzalek wrote in the eight-page appeal.

He asks for the board to schedule oral arguments on the decision. The nine-member board created to enforce Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws has the authority to affirm, reverse or modify Doland’s decision. The group may set a schedule for the appeal at its next meeting, Nov. 15 in Des Moines, Executive Director Margaret Johnson said.

Doland ruled Oct. 5 police body camera video, 911 call recordings and squad car dashboard camera images don’t get blanket confidentiality as part of “peace officers’ investigative reports.” She said placing these public records into a file with other records that are confidential doesn’t mean the whole file is off limits to the public.

The ruling came in a three-year public records dispute pitting the family of Autumn Steele and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper against the law enforcement agencies that had declined to release many records on the Jan. 6, 2015, shooting.

Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill responded to a domestic disturbance call at Steele’s house, where Autumn Steele and her husband, Gabriel Steele, were arguing in the yard as Gabriel Steele held one of their young sons.

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As Hill tried to stop Autumn Steele from striking her husband, who was trying to leave, the family dog, a German shepherd named Sammy, bit Hill’s leg, Hill told investigators after the shooting.

Hill fired his weapon twice, but slipped in the snow and accidentally hit Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two boys, killing her. No criminal charges were filed against Hill and he was allowed to return to work.

Many of these details became clearer in September, when a federal judge ordered release of the body camera video and other records after conclusion of a wrongful-death lawsuit, in which Steele’s family won $2 million from the city.

The board decided in October 2016 there was probable cause the law enforcement agencies violated public records law. A contested case hearing was held July 20.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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