Public Safety

Iowa justices limit penalties in some police excessive force cases

State Supreme Court sides 6-1 with state police officers

The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday sharply limited the financial damages that can be awarded for injuries and deaths caused by state police officers who are found to have used excessive force.

The court ruled 6-1 that punitive damages — intended to punish and deter future misconduct — are not available in cases in which state officers use excessive force in violation of constitutional rights.

The ruling applies to claims against law enforcement officers of state agencies, including the Iowa State Patrol, the Department of Natural Resources and the Division of Narcotics Enforcement.

Justice Edward Mansfield wrote for the majority that compensatory damages for victims, including for emotional distress and attorney fees, would still be available and offer “an adequate remedy.”

The court ruled that lawsuits brought by injured individuals and the families of those killed by state police are subject to limits in the Iowa Tort Claims Act, which governs claims against state employees.

The act bars punitive damages, has a two-year statute of limitations and requires litigants to present claims to the state and wait at least six months before filing suit.

Civil rights lawyers say the law can delay and impede justice, while supporters say it protects taxpayers.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The court ruled in a case filed by the mother of a suicidal 19-year-old man who was killed by a state conservation officer during a 2017 police standoff in Dakota City.

The lawsuit alleges that the Iowa DNR officer was untrained in responding to such a situation and was too quick to fire on her son, Shane Jensen, who was armed and having a mental health crisis.

Four local police officers on the scene did not shoot. They were aware of Jensen’s mental condition and “knew that time and patience were their ally,” the lawsuit claims.

The state officer said he fired a single bullet that killed Jensen after the suspect fired a shot into the air and pointed his gun at officers. The Humboldt County attorney ruled that the shooting was justified.

Attorney David O’Brien, who represents Jensen’s family, said he was disappointed in the court’s decision barring punitive damages, but that it did specifically allow for the first time for claims against officers to be pursued under the Iowa Constitution.

Punitive damages may still be available in federal court, O’Brien said.

“We’ll follow all paths to justice for Shane’s family,” he said.

Dissenting Justice Brent Appel said he believed punitive damages should be available in excessive force cases, noting that state law says the act’s limits do not apply to claims involving assault or battery.

Appel said punitive damages were important to serve the public interest, saying they allow jurors to send “an expression of community outrage and a measure of deterrence” when constitutional violations are proven. He cited high-profile cases involving force used by white police officers against Black citizens.

“Brutal beatings or excessive force cases such as Rodney King, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor are not just private matters to be adjusted through the transfer of funds to the victim,” he wrote. “Does the case involve systemic blue on black violence, a mere one-off not likely to be repeated, or a reasonable effort by law enforcement in a difficult situation to protect the public? These questions are very public matters.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Civil rights lawyers say lawsuits are important for accountability because officers are rarely charged criminally.

A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that Democratic Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s office has not convicted an officer for using unnecessary force of any kind since at least 2004, and pursued charges against only two officers in 35 cases.

Miller’s office represents the Iowa DNR officer in the Jensen case and had asked the court to find that punitive damages are not allowed in such lawsuits.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.