The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a Cedar Rapids case that will determine what information the police can withhold from the public. The city of Cedar Rapids and Cedar Rapids Police Officer Lucas Jones are appealing a decision by a Linn County District Court judge that the city must turn over police investigative reports in a lawsuit filed by Jermine “Danky” Mitchell, who was paralyzed from the neck down after being shot by Officer Jones during a traffic stop 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 the Cedar Rapids Police Department (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.
Regardless of the nature of the encounter between Mitchell and Jones, 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.
In December 2016, a grand jury declined to indict Jones in the shooting. That decision caused controversy in Cedar Rapids, because Mitchell was not asked to testify before the grand jury, and had not even been interviewed by investigators when the decision was made.
CRPD also cleared Jones in the shooting, and he is still on the force.
(According to CRPD, a pound of marijuana and a scale were found in Mitchell’s truck after the shooting. No charges were ever filed against Mitchell.)
Mitchell and his wife, Bracken, filed suit against 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, 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. 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 city and Jones are asking the Iowa Supreme Court to overrule Grady, and affirm that state law exempts investigator reports from open records requests.
Oral arguments will begin at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 5, and anyone interested can watch a video livestream the court’s site.