On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the Cedar Rapids Police Department must turn over investigative records to a man suing the city after being shot by a CRPD officer. But as part of their decision, the justices ruled police departments in Iowa can permanently withhold from the public almost all records related to their investigations.
Writing for the court, Justice Thomas Waterman said the Iowa Open Records Act only requires law enforcement agencies to release “immediate facts and circumstances” regarding an incident. He did not define what that term means.
The ruling came in the case of Jerime “Danky” Mitchell, who was shot by Cedar Rapids Police Department (CRPD) Officer Lucas Jones during a traffic stop near Coe College on the night of Nov. 1, 2016.
Jones pulled over Mitchell’s pickup truck because the truck’s rear license plate light was out, according to CRPD. Mitchell alleges Jones didn’t properly explain why he’d been stopped, and the officer behaved in an aggressive manner, eventually ordering his police dog to kill Mitchell. The lawsuit also contends that Jones drew his gun without provocation, pointed it at Mitchell and told him, “I’m going to kill you, man.” Mitchell said he then tried to drive away.
Jones, CRPD and the city of Cedar Rapids deny this version of events and say that Jones behaved properly, and only fired his gun when he feared for his life. Dash-cam video of the stop has been made public, but there is no audio. According to CRPD, Jones’ body microphone was not working that night.
What isn’t in dispute is that when Mitchell attempted to drive away, Jones was caught in the still-open driver’s side door and he fired his gun three times at Mitchell. One of the shots severed Mitchell’s spinal cord.
The CRPD claimed a pound of marijuana and a scale were found in Mitchell’s truck after the shooting, but no charges were ever filed against Mitchell. In December 2016, a grand jury declined to indict Jones in the shooting and CRPD cleared him in the shooting. Jones is still on the force.
Mitchell and his wife, Bracken, sued the city of Cedar Rapids and Jones over the shooting in February 2017, alleging negligence; reckless, willful and wanton behavior; assault and battery; intentional infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium (a term for the right of a spouse or family member of a victim to file suit in a personal injury case).
As part of the discovery process in the lawsuit, the Mitchells sought any investigators’ reports regarding the incident. Cedar Rapids refused to provide those reports, claiming that Iowa’s Open Records Act has an exemption for investigators’ reports.
In November 2017, Linn County District Court Judge Patrick Grady ordered the city to turn over the reports.
“[T]his 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,” Grady wrote in his decision. “The alleged facts of the incident have been the subject of wide media coverage and broad public discussion. Public disclosure of these reports in a county of over 200,000 people may enhance the public discussion but should not jeopardize any party’s right to a fair trial.”
The supreme court found that Grady did not exceed his authority, because his order was limited to records generated within 96 hours of the shooting. But the court did not agree with Grady that it was relevant that the investigation of the incident had been closed for an extended period of time.
“We hold that police investigative reports do not lose their confidential status… when the investigation closes,” Waterman wrote.
Friday’s decision will allow the discovery process in Mitchell to continue. The trial in the lawsuit is scheduled to begin in 2020.