Public Safety

ACLU sues Iowa Public Information Board over Autumn Steele records

'These records shouldn't be held in secret for all time'

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has filed a lawsuit seeking review of a decision by the Iowa Public Information Board that two law enforcement agencies did not break the law by keeping secret the body camera video and other records of a 2015 officer-involved fatal shooting in Burlington.

“We’re arguing, essentially, that the Public Information Board got it wrong,” ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said Monday in a news conference. “These records shouldn’t be held in secret for all time.”

The ACLU filed the suit Friday in Polk County District Court on behalf of Adam Klein, an attorney who represented the family of Autumn Steele, who was fatally shot by Burlington police Officer Jesse Hill on Jan. 6, 2015 in her yard.

Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk-Eye filed complaints with the board in 2015 after the Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation refused to release police body camera video, a 911 recording, squad car dashboard camera video and other records of the shooting. The law enforcement agencies said they complied with the public records law by releasing basic facts.

The board decided in October 2016 there was probable cause the agencies violated public records law. A contested case hearing was held July 20, 2018.

Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland ruled Oct. 5 the law enforcement agencies broke the law by keeping the records secret, saying police body camera video, 911 call recordings and dashboard camera images don’t get blanket confidentiality as “peace officers’ investigative reports.”

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office and Burlington police appealed late last year.

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Separately, records and video from the case were released last September by a federal court judge after the Steele family won a $2 million wrongful-death settlement. But that still left the state case — and its implications for the future of public scrutiny of police investigations — in limbo.

The board voted 6-2 on Feb. 21 to void Doland’s decision, saying officers’ investigative records may be kept secret even after a case is closed. Further, members said the public information board doesn’t have jurisdiction to apply a balancing test to see if the public value of disclosure outweighs benefits of confidentiality.

The ACLU petition asks a District Court to reverse that decision.

Klein and the ACLU want the court to rule 911 calls, bodycam video and dashcam video all fall into the “immediate facts and circumstances” of a crime that cannot be kept confidential unless release would jeopardize an investigation or put someone in danger.

They also want the court to require that records deemed potentially confidential be subject to a balancing test weighing public interest in disclosure with the government’s interest in confidentiality.

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

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