Chris Kelly, arrested for ‘walking while Black’ in 2019, sues ICPD officers, a county attorney, Iowa City and Johnson County

An Iowa City Police Department vehicle in downtown Iowa City, May 29, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Chris Kelly, an Iowa City resident who was arrested by Iowa City Police officers in a case a federal judge later called “a story of ‘walking while black,’” has filed a federal lawsuit against the officers who arrested him, an assistant Johnson County Attorney, as well as both Iowa City and Johnson County. The lawsuit contends all the defendants were involved in violating Kelly’s civil rights and inflicted physical, mental and emotional damage in their treatment of him.

Kelly was walking across the Waterfront Hy-Vee parking lot on Dec. 26, 2019 to get something to eat from the store’s gas station when Assistant Johnson County Attorney Jude Pannell, who was at Hy-Vee, saw him. Pannell thought Kelly looked familiar from a case he had handled in the past. Pannell also claimed he thought Kelly looked “suspicious,” because Kelly was “intently staring” at police officers already at Hy-Vee and seemed to have something heavy in one of his jacket pockets, which Pannell speculated might be a gun.

Pannell called the cellphone of ICPD Officer Travis Neeld, who was nearby, and told him that he was suspicious of “a black man with dreadlocks, a stocking cap, and a camouflage jacket” who had a “bulge” in his coat that could possibly be a gun. Neeld relayed the information to ICPD Officer Niles Mercer. Neeld and Mercer watched Kelly go into the gas station, and eventually exit with his purchases.

Neeld pulled his police cruiser to the where Kelly was walking at the north end of the Hy-Vee parking lot. Body camera footage shows Neeld waved for Kelly to cross the street, and after Kelly did, Neeld pulled his car in front of Kelly and accused him of jaywalking.

Neeld lectured Kelly on jaywalking, and began questioning him. The officer asked Kelly if he had any outstanding warrants. Kelly, who didn’t, said no. As Neeld’s lecture on jaywalking and questions seemed to come to end, Kelly began to leave. That’s when Mercer and other officers approach the spot where Kelly was being detained.

In addition to Neeld and Mercer, the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on Tuesday includes John Does 1 though 10 for ICPD officers who were involved but whose names are currently not known.

Kelly was ordered to place his hands on his head, because “he may have a warrant,” Neeld told the other officers. Kelly did so. Neeld grabbed one of Kelly’s raised arms, Kelly began to pull away but was seized by two other officers. Kelly was forced to the ground and tased at least twice.

A search uncovered a handgun and 18 grams of marijuana. Kelly was subsequently charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors.

Pannell asked the police officers to leave his name out of the report, since it would create a conflict of interest if he was the informant in the case, if the Johnson County Attorney’s Officer prosecuted Kelly. The officers did as Pannell asked.

After his arrest, Kelly was held in the Muscatine County Jail, which had a contract with Johnson County to house some of its prisoners.

In August 2020, Federal Judge Stephanie Rose ruled the police had no probable cause to stop Kelly.

“Kelly’s encounter with law enforcement on December 26, 2019, continues a long and unfortunate pattern of racial profiling and pretextual stops of Americans of color,” Rose wrote.

Rose called Kelly’s arrest “a story of ‘walking while Black’” and ruled that the evidence recovered as a result of Neeld stopping him was inadmissible. It would be another two months before all the charges against Kelly were dismissed. Kelly spent eight months in the Muscatine County Jail after his arrest.

In the complaint filed on Tuesday, Kelly’s attorney, Aaron Marr Page, echoes Judge Rose, and argues what happened in December 2019 “was not some isolated incident; not the result of any single individual’s singular exercise of ‘poor judgment’ or a ‘mistake,’ nor merely the work of a few ‘bad apples.’ It did not come out of nowhere. Rather, it was a particularly flagrant instance of a broader and long-standing custom and practice that is familiar to many, many Black people in Iowa City.”

The lawsuit calls what happened to Kelly, and has happened to other Black people stopped by the police in Iowa City, “the Treatment.”

According to the filing, “the Treatment… [is] a racially-motivated police stop, made without or with only pretextual regard to probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion, followed by an escalation of the confrontation using select tactics, and typically resulting in degrading treatment, excessive use of force, and/or wrongful arrest of the targeted individual, and which is selectively deployed at the discretion of ICPD officers and other local officials as a means of sending a law enforcement message to the targeted individual and the broader Black community, i.e. to keep them ‘in line.’”

The complaint contains 12 counts, which outline ways in which Kelly’s constitutional rights were violated, from unlawful stop and seizure to racial profiling and a conspiracy by Pannell, Neeldt, Mercer and five of the John Does officers to illegally cover up facts in the case against Kelly.

In the final count of the complaint, the lawsuit notes “Mr. Kelly reasonably fears that he could experience similar conduct by Defendants in the future. Mr. Kelly continues to live and work in Iowa City and Johnson County. He is also concerned that he will be especially targeted because he successfully moved to have his criminal case dismissed and has now commenced this lawsuit.”

The filing states that none of the officers involved have faced disciplinary actions for their part in Kelly’s arrest, and neither has Pannell.

Kelly is seeking damages, including “all actual, compensatory, consequential, special and other allowable damages, on all claims as allowed by law in an amount to be determined at trial.” He is asking for a jury trial.

“I am seeking some peace of mind as well as justice,” Kelly said in a written statement on Tuesday after the lawsuit was filed. “My mind can’t get over what happened, how they came after me just because they felt like it. They didn’t care about the law, didn’t care about my rights. They were so sure they would just get away with it. And they almost did.”

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