Court says confidentiality for cop files isn’t absolute

By Randy Evans

The Iowa Supreme Court delivered an important, and unanimous, decision on April 5 on the issue of public access to law enforcement investigative files.

But the exact ramifications of the decision remain a matter of conjecture.

Lawyers disagree whether the ruling affects only access to investigative materials by parties in litigation or if it also binds police officials responding to requests for access to investigative records submitted by journalists and the public.

Also, to be determined is whether the Iowa Public Information Board will follow the Supreme Court’s precedent of applying a balancing of interests when the board decides future administrative complaints involving police records.

The Supreme Court ruling came in a lawsuit that Jerime Mitchell of Cedar Rapids filed against that city’s police department and Officer Lucas Jones after an incident early on the morning of Nov. 1, 2016.

Mitchell was left a quadriplegic when Jones fired three shots at him as Mitchell started to drive away after a traffic stop while Jones was clinging to the door of Mitchell’s pickup truck. One bullet struck Mitchell in the neck.

The lawsuit has not yet gone to trial. The city and Officer Jones asked the Supreme Court to decide if the district court judge was wrong when he refused to issue a protective order for certain files from the police investigation of the shooting that Mitchell’s lawyers want for their lawsuit.

Attorneys for the city and officer wanted the judge to order Mitchell and his lawyers to keep those police files confidential. Mitchell’s attorneys objected to the police deciding what is public and what is confidential.

The Supreme Court’s decision, written by Justice Thomas Waterman of Davenport, provided no clear victory for either side and did not make definitive declarations that public access to police investigative files should be required or should never occur.

Instead, the court decided that the conflicting interests of the public and police must be sorted out by balancing access and confidentiality interests that will change depending on the facts of any given case.

While the court rejected the argument that police investigative reports lose their confidential status under Iowa Code section 22.7(5) when an investigation closes, the court also refused to find those reports are categorically closed off from public access.

The Supreme Court relied on a 1994 ruling by the court in a case brought by the Burlington Hawk Eye over access to a report of an investigation by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation into allegations of possible misconduct by a Burlington police officer. The 1994 decision held that a balancing of competing interests was appropriate, with the closure of an investigation serving as one factor to be considered.

In reaffirming the legal guidance contained in its landmark decision 35 years ago, Justice Waterman’s majority opinion quoted from the Hawk Eye decision:

“Determining where the line falls between public harm and public good requires weighing the relative merits of the interests at stake. We have long recognized that confidentiality encourages persons to come forward with information, whether substantiated or not, that might be used to solve crimes and deter criminal activity. Secrecy is especially vital where reports are based on confidential informants, persons indispensable to successful police work but who frequently fear intimidation and reprisal. Furthermore, nondisclosure permits law enforcement officials the necessary privacy to discuss findings and theories about cases under investigation.”

Waterman’s decision continued: “In affirming the order compelling release of the DCI report in 1994, we noted factors also present in today’s case: the absence of any confidential informants or ‘named but innocent suspects,’ or any ongoing police investigation, and the presence of a heightened public interest in police use of force. We stated, ‘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.’ We concluded based on the factual record that ‘any public harm created by the disclosure of the DCI investigatory report is far outweighed by the public harm accruing from its nondisclosure.’ ”

With the decision last week, the court made clear that its 1994 Hawk Eye ruling is still the controlling legal precedent that needs to be followed in determining questions about public access to police investigative files.

The Supreme Court said its more recent decision, one in a 2012 case involving the ACLU and the Atlantic school district, is relevant only to “categorical exemptions” in the public records law, such as the one for government employees’ personnel records. The ACLU had sued the school district, seeking access to the disciplinary records for two Atlantic school employees who conducted a strip-search of five high school girls after a report of a theft at the school.

You can read the Supreme Court’s decision in Mitchell v. Cedar Rapids here:  Supco.Decision.04.05.2019

Government officials and the Iowa Public Information Board have asserted that the Atlantic case provides the legal justification for categorically denying the public access to police investigative files beyond the “immediate facts and circumstances” of incidents or crimes police officers are sent to investigate.

In February, the Iowa Public Information Board relied on the Atlantic case in concluding that the Burlington Police Department and DCI did not violate the public records law when they refused to release 911 recordings and police body camera video from the fatal shooting of Autumn Steele by a police officer in 2015.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous conclusion to the contrary in the Cedar Rapids case was unambiguous:

“We hold the police investigative reports at issue are not exempt from public disclosure. … A protective order limiting disclosure to third parties would be pointless here when any member of the public could obtain the same reports through an Iowa Code chapter 22 open records request. We determine that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendants’ motion for protective order.”

The impact of the Supreme Court’s conclusion on the pending appeal to Polk County District Court of the IPIB’s Autumn Steele decision is unclear. But in affirming the denial of the protective order in the Cedar Rapids case, the Supreme Court effectively let the trial court’s order stand as correct.

Here is what District Judge Patrick Grady wrote in his decision that brought the Jerime Mitchell case before the Supreme Court:

“As in Hawk Eye v. Jackson, this court finds that the public’s right to know greatly outweighs law enforcement and the party’s right to privacy for an incident that happened one year ago, has already been fully investigated internally by the police and has already been through the grand jury process with no charges brought against the officer.”

Judge Grady’s decision does not apply to the entire police investigative file from the incident involving Mitchell. The judge said his ruling covers investigative reports or electronic communications generated or filed within 96 hours of the shooting. The ruling does not apply to reports or memos generated solely for the police department’s internal review of the incident.

Grady said there is no ongoing investigation involving the Mitchell records, and there has been no allegations that any person’s safety would be impaired if the records were made public. He wrote that his order allows disclosure of documents “concerning immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident.”

You can read Judge Grady’s decision on public access to certain police files in the Mitchell shooting here:  JudgeGrady_Nov2018

The shooting of Jerime Mitchell ignited controversy in Cedar Rapids. Citizens protested the officer’s actions and the county attorney’s decision not to bring charges against the officer.

Fueling the controversy were the fact the shooting grew out of a traffic stop that typically results in a ticket, at most; because Officer Jones followed Mitchell’s pickup for a few blocks before stopping the vehicle; because Mitchell is black and Jones is white, and because 11 months earlier, Officer Jones fired 16 rounds at a fleeing man, killing him.

The author is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. If you have questions about Iowa’s open meetings or open records laws, contact Randy Evans at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.

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