Public Safety

Iowa Freedom of Information Council sues Polk County over fatal shooting of motorist

Lawsuit cites Cedar Rapids court case that makes some police records public

DES MOINES — The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is suing the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for refusing to release records in a fatal shooting of a motorist by police in Altoona last year.

The lawsuit cites the ruling in a Cedar Rapids case involving Jerime Mitchell, who was shot by a Cedar Rapids police officer in 2016 during a traffic stop.

The Polk County case involves the shooting death of Isaiah Hayes, 25, of Ashland, Wis., following a July 17, 2018, traffic stop east of Altoona

The Information Council is seeking dashcam video of the traffic stop, audio files of police radio traffic and a list of evidence to confirm Hayes had a gun.

Polk County law enforcement officials say the documents and other materials are part of law enforcement investigative files and need to remain confidential, according to the lawsuit.

Polk County Deputy Sheriff Ryan Phillips, 31, stopped Hayes about 3:30 a.m. in what authorities said was a stolen vehicle. Moments after being pulled over, Hayes drove off, and Phillips pursued him. The chase ended minutes later when Hayes stopped his vehicle in a residential area, jumped out and ran.

Phillips told investigators he believed he saw Hayes with a weapon as he left the vehicle, according to the lawsuit. Phillips fired his gun at Hayes, who died at the scene.

A Polk County grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Phillips, and an internal investigation also cleared the deputy of improper conduct.

The suit states authorities have refused to explain why Phillips was initially stopped or to confirm whether any weapon was found on Hayes. They also have refused to say how many times Phillips fired and whether Hayes was hit from behind or from the front.

The council, in the lawsuit, argues the council and the public have a strong interest in the conduct of law enforcement, especially in incidents that end in a death. The Iowa Supreme Court recently endorsed that view in the Mitchell case, the lawsuit states.

Mitchell, 41, is suing the city of Cedar Rapids after being shot during a Nov. 1, 2016, traffic stop that left him paralyzed, and his lawyers sued to gain access to police records.

The Iowa justices in April ruled Mitchell’s lawyers can access certain police materials, including electronic recordings, phone communications and interviews, but exempted from public disclosure internal review records.

A balancing test should be used, the justices ruled, in evaluating the appropriateness of disclosing police investigative reports, weighing “where the line falls between public harm and public good.”

The ruling also said police investigative reports aren’t exempt from public disclosure.

Mitchell was shot after his pickup was stopped by Cedar Rapids police officer Lucas Jones near Coe College. An altercation began, and Mitchell tried to drive off, catching the officer in the pickup’s open door. Jones said he fired at Mitchell three times to make him stop.

Neither Mitchell, who is black, nor Jones, who is white, was charged with wrongdoing. Jones returned to active duty.

Randy Evans, executive director of Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said in a statement, “It’s disappointing that Polk County officials have failed to grasp the heightened public interest in the actions of their law officers that result in the loss of life.”

“Continuing to assert that the public is not entitled to basic information about Mr. Hayes’ death — especially after the Iowa Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision to the contrary — only serves to erode public respect and confidence in our law officers.”

The council, in the lawsuit, points out under Iowa’s public records law, even if the judge concludes the materials sought by the council are confidential, the court can order the records released to serve the public interest.

The council is a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved public access to government meetings and records to further the accountability of state and local governments.

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