The two-day appeal hearing for fired Cedar Rapids police officer Lucas Jones has been rescheduled, and will now start on Sept. 22 instead of Aug. 18, after lawyers for both sides filed a joint motion to delay the hearing in hopes of holding it in person instead of via videoconferencing. But the Cedar Rapids Civil Service Commission told the lawyers to continue to plan for an all virtual hearing unless the COVID-19 pandemic significantly improves.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department fired Jones in June for turning off a microphone that should have been recording a traffic stop he conducted on Oct. 30, 2016, then lying about it. His letter of termination details six violations stemming from the traffic stop that led to him receiving letters of reprimand, a 40-hour suspension and eventually being fired.
The October stop in question occurred two days before Jones shot and paralyzed Jerime Mitchell during a traffic stop on Nov. 1, 2016. Jones’s audio recording was also not working during the November traffic stop, but CRPD has not said why. A grand jury declined to indict Jones for the shooting and an investigation by the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation concluded that Jones had not broken the law when he shot Mitchell.
Jones’s attorney Skylar Limkemann filed an appeal on his behalf on July 2.
There was indication during the Cedar Rapids Civil Service Commission’s July 23 meeting that the hearing would be conducted partially in person. Attorneys, witnesses and commissioners would all be there in person, but the public would watch online. This was the preference of both the CRPD and Jones, according to their respective lawyers.
However, at the commission’s meeting on July 31, its three members voted to conduct the appeal hearing entirely online due to rising cases of COVID-19 and to ensure everyone had equal access to the hearing. Attorney Mo Sheronick, who is representing the commission, said this was the safest legal option.
Attorney Jason Craig, who is representing the CRPD, and Limkemann both raised concerns about having the hearing entirely online. In addition to technology concerns, Craig said an online hearing potentially gives Jones a procedural issue to raise on appeal, if he objects to the lack of an in-person hearing. Limkemann said he believes an online hearing would deny Jones his due process and that Jones strongly objects to a virtual hearing.
In light of these concerns, Limkemann and Craig filed a joint motion to push the hearing to late September.
“We share Mr. Limkemann’s concerns about a non-in-person hearing,” Craig said during the commission’s Aug. 5 meeting. “Our preference would be to conduct the hearing in person — that was the driving force behind the motion. We thought to push the hearing date a bit to see if COVID situation improves, as well as give us time to make arrangements to conduct this hearing in the safest way possible.”
Commission chair Nancy Evans said there’s no problem in moving the hearing to September but that she’s “not willing to stipulate at this time that it would be anything other than the way we have currently set it up, which is all virtual.”
“We can always revisit [the format] closer to the time but to agree to the motion to continue does not include a decision that the format will be all public,” Evans said.
Evans added that it’s difficult to know what the situation will look like in September. She said it’s “hard for me to picture that September will be better” and added that schools will be reopening soon.
Commissioners Kory Kazimour and Greg Reed were both in agreement with moving the hearing but keeping it virtual.
Limkemann again brought up that Jones objects to “any format that’s outside of conducting the hearing in-person” and that Jones is asking for the commission to work with the city to identify ways to take precautions for an in-person hearing.
“I just want to remind the commission that this is Lucas Jones’s appeal,” Limkemann said. “It’s his opportunity to appeal to the commission. While the public has an opportunity to be present and observe or have contemporary access, it’s not the public’s hearing. It’s Chief Jerman and Lucas Jones’s appeal hearing. … So I don’t want to lose sight of the interests of the parties as well, but I understand that we have to balance a number of different interests in this case, particularly with the pandemic in the background.”
Sheronick said the commission is “well within its right” to continue with the fully online plan, which will then allow the attorneys enough time to plan accordingly.
“These are unprecedented times in any of our lives and careers and everything else,” Sheronick said. “I understand — and I’m speaking partially for myself here but I’m trying to express the Commission’s position as well, I understand Lucas Jones wants an in person hearing. Anybody would. That’s not the issue. The issue is would it be responsible for this commission during what looks like at least round two of a non-ending pandemic to go that route?”
“I think that it should be clear at this point what the commission’s thinking is unless lightning strikes, we’re going to be, at least in September, maybe into October, we’re going to be face to face with this pandemic. Everybody should just make the assumption that it’s going to be fully online and plan your cases accordingly.”
Following the 20 minutes of discussion, the three commission members all voted to start the two-day hearing on Sept. 22 at 9 a.m. The commission will meet about two weeks before the hearing, on Sept. 11 at noon, to assess if there is a need to alter the format at the request of Jones and Limkemann.
“I agree with what Mr. Sheronick said, if that wasn’t clear for what I said, that this is a virtual hearing unless lightning strikes, but we will get together on the 11th to hear from counsel at their request,” Evans said after the vote right before the meeting adjourned.