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Neighbors Growing Together | Jul 22, 2017

Burlington police records case about fatal shootings likely to be delayed

Judge rules police must share disputed records with prosecutor
By Erin Jordan, The Gazette | Jul 03, 2017

Legal wrangling likely will delay the contested hearing over whether two Iowa law enforcement agencies broke public records law by not releasing documents about a 2015 fatal shooting of a Burlington woman by police.

Autumn Steele, 34, was killed Jan. 6, 2015, by Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill, who accidentally shot Steele when he fired at her advancing dog.

Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper filed complaints with the Iowa Public Information Board when the local police and then the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation would not turn over investigative records, including body camera and dash camera video.

The board, charged with enforcing public records and public meetings laws, voted 5-3 in October to charge the law enforcement agencies with breaking Iowa’s public records law.

There’s a lot at stake in the case because the public records exemption the DCI and Burlington Police Department cite to keep the documents secret could shield most police investigations — even in cases that are closed.

“It’s a big issue because of the precedent of how (Iowa Code Section) 22.7(5) is interpreted,” said Margaret Johnson, board director.

The DCI and Burlington police filed a motion for summary judgment in the spring, but Mark McCormick, a former Iowa Supreme Court justice now prosecuting the case on behalf of the board, said he could not respond to that motion until he could see the disputed records, Johnson said.

Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland ruled June 12 the law enforcement agencies either had to turn over the records to McCormick or give him a list of each document they are withholding and why they think it’s confidential.

“The ‘blanket claim of privilege’ asserted by the DCI and Burlington at this stage of the proceedings is not supported by the case law,” Doland wrote.

Burlington and the DCI appealed that decision, saying it was based on an “erroneous interpretation” of Iowa law and will cause “irreparable harm” to the law enforcement agencies.

The board will decide on this appeal, Johnson said, but if the law enforcement agencies don’t like the decision, they can go to district court.

The motion for summary judgment also must be settled.

“All that is process, not substance,” Johnson said.

She thinks the contested case hearing, now scheduled for Aug. 29 in Des Moines, will be postponed.

Steele’s family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court against the Burlington police and Hill. That case is scheduled to go to trial Aug. 20, 2018.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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