Iowa justices hear call to keep shooting records secret related to Jerime Mitchell

Cedar Rapids argues public shouldn't see Jerime Mitchell reports

Wilford Stone (from left), attorney for the city of Cedar Rapids and Officer Lucas Jones, answers a question Tuesday as
Wilford Stone (from left), attorney for the city of Cedar Rapids and Officer Lucas Jones, answers a question Tuesday as state Supreme Court justices Susan Christensen, Thomas Waterman, David Wiggins, Chief Justice Mark Cady, Brent Appel and Edward Mansfield look on during oral arguments in Des Moines. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — An attorney for the city of Cedar Rapids started to argue Tuesday night before the Iowa Supreme Court that police investigative reports sought in a lawsuit by a man who was shot and injured by a police officer should be kept from the public.

But before Cedar Rapids lawyer Wilford "Bill" Stone could get far, Justice David Wiggins wanted to know what makes these reports confidential. According to the state’s open records law, he asked, wouldn’t those reports be confidential only if they involved an ongoing investigation?

Stone said under the law, it was unconditional — that all law enforcement investigative reports are confidential.

The city had asked justices to review 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Patrick Grady’s order from 2017 in Jerime Mitchell’s lawsuit against the city, asserting Grady abused his discretion on the records.

Mitchell was shot and paralyzed after a Nov. 1, 2016, traffic stop near Coe College. The officer who pulled him over, Lucas Jones, said Mitchell began an altercation and tried to flee, catching the officer in the open door of his pickup. Jones said he shot three times to make Mitchell stop,

Neither Mitchell nor Jones were charged with wrongdoing. Jones eventually returned to active duty. Mitchell filed suit against him and the city.

In his ruling over the records being sought, Grady required the city to turn over police investigative reports to Mitchell’s lawyers about the incident. The city contends Grady also should have issued a protective order to keep lawyers from then releasing the records to the public.

Tuesday, Stone argued a protective order also would benefit Mitchell. The city isn’t disputing that Mitchell could receive the requested documents — only that the documents shouldn’t be disclosed to the public and the news media.

Justice Thomas Waterman asked him how such a disclosure would harm the case.

Stone said it’s “worrisome” because the release could taint a jury pool with pretrial publicity. A protective order would prevent that.

Mitchell, 41, and his wife, Bracken, of Cedar Rapids, sued the city and Jones in February 2017, but that lawsuit has been on hold pending the Supreme Court’s review of Grady’s ruling.

In November 2017, Grady ruled the city must turn over to Mitchell’s attorneys any investigative reports or electronic communications generated or filed within 96 hours of the shooting.

But he stopped short of also requiring the city to turn over any reports or memos used solely for a police internal review.

Mitchell’s attorneys also asked to access documents from the city and the police department over Jones’ involvement in another incident — a 2015 fatal shooting that is the subject of a separate lawsuit in federal court.

Laura Scultes, Mitchell’s lawyer, said this a “straightforward dispute” over discovery materials, but the city wants a “sweeping” protective order that includes all documents. Disclosures the lawyers have received from the city so far are all marked as confidential.

Schultes, in her written argument, said the district court’s ruling denying the protective order is narrow and forms the basis of the lawsuit.

Justice Edward Mansfield asked how it would affect the civil case if the records are confidential.

Schultes said “open government is a good thing, unless they can show some risk”— such as an ongoing investigation or protecting informants.

Chief Justice Mark Cady said the court would have a decision in a few months.

Mitchell’s civil trial has been set for Aug. 11, 2020 — nearly four years after the shooting.

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