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Iowa Supreme Court sees wide FOIA exemption for police files

IOWA CITY — Police records related to investigations can be withheld from the public under Iowa’s freedom of information law even after the cases have been closed, a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

A clause in the Iowa Open Records Act that exempts “peace officers’ investigative reports” from public disclosure does not apply only to ongoing investigations, the court ruled. Those reports, which departments have argued include audio and video files, 911 calls and witness statements, do not lose their confidential status when investigations are over, Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the court.

Police departments only are required to release the “immediate facts and circumstances” related to a crime or incident under the law. However, judges can order departments to release records during litigation if they find that disclosure would be in the public interest, the court said.

The ruling came in a case involving a black motorist who was shot by a white police officer in Cedar Rapids after a struggle during a 2016 traffic stop. The driver, Jerime Mitchell, is suing the city and Officer Lucas Jones for compensation after the shooting left him paralyzed. Friday’s decision means the city has to turn over reports and communications that were generated within 96 hours of the shooting to Mitchell’s lawyers, who can make them public.

The city already released dashcam video of the shooting. But it had refused to release additional records related to the investigation without a protective order barring Mitchell’s lawyers from sharing them with the public, saying their release would have a chilling effect on investigations and taint potential jurors. Activists have protested the county prosecutor’s decision not to charge Jones.

Lawyers for Mitchell argued that the exemption for police reports was only intended to protect departments from having to disclose information that could jeopardize open investigations. A clause in a sentence in the law says it applies to information that’s “part of an ongoing investigation.” But Waterman wrote that did not apply to investigative reports and only to certain email and telephone records, due to the placement of commas in the sentence.

Instead, he wrote that lawmakers intended to keep investigative reports confidential indefinitely, with some exceptions. Under Friday’s ruling, departments can use their discretion to release records relating to the “facts and circumstances” of an incident, and courts may order their disclosure under a balancing test weighing the public interest against potential harm.

An unsettled question is whether audio and video from body and dashboard cameras can be considered investigative files and withheld on that basis. The Iowa Public Information Board ruled recently that police videos and 911 calls are investigative records and therefore not subject to public disclosure.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa went to court last month to appeal the board’s decision, which involved an officer’s accidental fatal shooting of a mother in Burlington. The group argued that the board’s interpretation of the law would deny the public “oversight of virtually all law enforcement records concerning any crime or incident.” The outcome of that case could help clarify the impact of Friday’s ruling.

One of Mitchell’s attorneys, Pressley Henningsen, said Friday’s ruling is a victory for the public’s right-to-know when it comes to information obtained through lawsuits.

“This ruling makes it clear that civil litigation is one of those avenues to figuring out what happened and why, and those things should not be swept under a rug,” he said.

Iowa Freedom of Information Council director Randy Evans said it was positive the court kept its long-standing balancing test in place. But he said the case suggests that those seeking police records may need to go to court to get them until lawmakers revise the law.

“That’s troubling because there are few citizens and an ever-shrinking number of media entities that have the financial resources to mount that kind of a legal challenge,” he said.