Cedar Rapids police investigative reports can be made public as part of a lawsuit filed against the city by a driver who was shot and disabled by an officer in 2016, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Justice Thomas Waterman, writing for the majority, said a district judge didn’t abuse his discretion by not requiring a protective order — which would have prevented disclosure to the public — when he ruled the police reports should be turned over to Jerime and Bracken Mitchell. He noted the lower court's order balanced “confidentiality and transparency.”
The city asked justices for the interlocutory appeal to review 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Patrick Grady’s order from 2017, which allowed the records to be public.
Grady included electronic recordings, phone communications and interviews, but exempted from public disclosure police internal review records. He also limited police investigative reports to those within 96 hours of the shooting incident.
Jerime Mitchell, 41, 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, who is black, nor Jones, who is white, was charged with wrongdoing. Jones eventually returned to active duty on the force.
The lawsuit, filed in February 2017 against Jones and the city of Cedar Rapids, has been on hold pending this review of Grady’s ruling.
Laura Schultes, one of Mitchell’s attorneys, said Friday the attorneys are pleased with the ruling and eager to move ahead.
Wilford “Bill” Stone, who argued the appeal earlier this year for both his client, Jones, and the city, declined Friday to comment.
Schultes argued in February to the court that the reports are not confidential and the city didn’t meet its burden to show cause for a protective order in light of the public interest in an officer-involved shooting.
Stone, during the hearing, said all law enforcement investigative reports are confidential. He also said disclosure of these documents could hinder candor in internal investigations and could “taint” a jury pool.
The justices, in reviewing previous case law, discovery rules, the Iowa Open Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act, concluded the record in this case is “devoid of evidence that disclosure would harm any specific individual” and so no protective order was required.
The justices relied on previous case law in Burlington Hawk Eye v. Jackson, which Judge Grady used in his ruling.
That case addressed the same issues Cedar Rapids raised in this case over confidentiality.
Confidentiality encourages people to come forward with information used to solve crimes or deter criminal activity, according to the ruling. Secrecy is vital when it involves confidential informants, and nondisclosure permits law enforcement officials privacy to discuss findings and theories about cases under investigation, the ruling states.
The Hawk Eye case involved a civil suit in the 1990s against a Burlington police officer accused of assaulting an individual. In that instance, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation gave a confidential report to the county attorney and police chief, and they concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. The newspaper requested a copy of the report but the county attorney had denied it.
In the civil case regarding that officer and city, the jury awarded damages to the victim, according to the ruling.
The court pointed out that the Mitchell and Hawk Eye cases have similarities: The police investigation had been completed without any confidential informant or unidentified suspect; and an officer injured or killed a civilian in separate incidents.
“There can be little doubt that allegations of leniency or cover-up with respect to the disciplining of those sworn to enforce the law are matters of great public concern,” the court said in the Hawk Eye ruling.
The court said there has been an ongoing national debate over the use of force by police on unarmed African-Americans. “Then and now, on balance, the public interest favors disclosure,” the court said Friday.
The police investigative reports at issue in the Mitchell case aren’t exempt from public disclosure, according to the ruling. A protective order limiting disclosure to the public “would be pointless here when any member of the public” could obtain the same reports through an open records request, Waterman wrote.
Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans said the public should be “heartened” by the ruling Friday that the court gave “more clarity to what is and what isn’t confidential.”
He hoped this might help focus a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which is asking for a review of the Iowa Public Information Board’s decision regarding a 2015 officer-involved fatal shooting in Burlington.
The board agreed that two Iowa law enforcement agencies did not break the law by keeping secret the body camera video and other records in the fatal shooting of Autumn Steele by Burlington police officer Jesse Hill on Jan. 6, 2015. The ACLU filed the suit last month in Polk County District Court on behalf of Adam Klein, an attorney who represented Steele’s family.
Evans said it will be interesting to see how the Iowa Public Information Board reacts to the Mitchell decision, which used the balancing test to weigh confidentiality of these police reports.
Proceedings in the Mitchell’s civil trial now will resume in District Court. A trial is set for Aug. 11, 2020.
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