When are police reports introduced in a civil trial public records? It depends, the Iowa Supreme Court says

by Rox Laird | April 11, 2019

The Iowa Supreme Court has clarified two previous rulings that reached seemingly contradictory positions on whether police investigative reports must be made public under the Iowa Open Records Act.

The clarification came in a ruling handed down April 5 in Jerime Eron Mitchell and Bracken Ann Mitchell v. City of Cedar Rapids and Officer Lucas Jones. The Court upheld a Linn County District Court order making public police investigative reports produced through discovery in a civil lawsuit filed by the family of a black man shot and paralyzed by a white police officer in a traffic stop.

The ruling spells out how the Iowa Open Records Act and previous court decisions govern the production of police reports in such civil cases:

1. Police investigative reports do not lose their status as confidential records under the Iowa Open Records Act when an investigation is concluded; however, the records law does not  prevent civil litigants from accessing police reports through discovery. Thus, confidential police reports produced through discovery may have to be sealed by the trial court with a protective order.

2. The Open Records Act exempts from confidentiality police reports that give the immediate facts and circumstances of a crime, and trial courts should apply a balancing test prescribed by the records act to determine how far that exemption reaches into police files.

3. The Court reaffirmed its 1994 decision in Hawk Eye v. Jackson, which applied a three-part balancing test to determine whether police investigative reports should be released to the public.

4. And, the Court explained how the Hawk Eye decision differs from – and is yet consistent with – its 2012 ruling in American Civil Liberties Union v. Atlantic Community School District, where the Court said a balancing test was not necessary to conclude that the records in question in that case were confidential.

The Mitchells asked Officer Jones and the City to produce police investigative reports regarding the shooting, which the City agreed to do only if access to the records was limited to the plaintiffs and no one else.

The plaintiffs objected, the trial judge ruled in their favor, and the City filed this interlocutory appeal. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Thomas Waterman, affirmed the lower court.

The City argued that the records should not be released, citing the Atlantic decision, which involved records of the public school’s disciplinary action against two school employees. In the Atlantic decision, the Court said no balancing test was necessary because the Open Records Act contained an explicit exemption for disciplinary records of public employees.

The Supreme Court, however, explained that the Atlantic decision did not apply in Mitchell’s case because there is no similarly applicable exemption for police records.

While police investigative reports do not lose their confidential status when the investigation concludes, the District Court relied on the second sentence of the Open Records Act, which states that “the date, time, specific location, and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident shall not be kept confidential under this section, except in those unusual circumstances where disclosure would plainly and seriously jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the safety of an individual.”

The trial court ordered Officer Jones and the City to produce certain police reports and communications generated within 96 hours of the shooting, and it applied the balancing test used in Hawk Eye in denying the defendants’ motion for a protective order preventing public access to those records.

The question before the Supreme Court, Waterman wrote, is whether Hawk Eye or Atlantic Community School District governs in this case.

In the Atlantic case, the school district refused to disclose discipline imposed against two school employees, arguing the disciplinary action was exempt from disclosure under a specific provision of the records law. “We determined that using a balancing test would undermine the Legislature’s intent in categorically removing these documents from public view,” Waterman wrote.

Thus, Atlantic Community School District controls when the records at issue fall within a categorical exemption in the Open Records Act, and no balancing of interests is necessary. “Atlantic Community School District did not overrule or even cite Hawk Eye,” the Court said, “which remains good law for disputes over access to police investigative reports under [Iowa Code] section 22.7(5), a provision with its own legislatively prescribed balancing test in the second sentence.”

The trial court properly applied the Hawk Eye balancing test, Waterman wrote, comparing the acute public interest in the Hawk Eye and Mitchell cases.

“In both cases, the police investigation had been completed without any confidential informant or unidentified suspect,” Waterman wrote. “In both cases, one officer injured or killed a civilian in separate incidents. Then and now, the dispute arose against the backdrop of a national debate over the use of force by police on unarmed African-Americans – Rodney King in 1991 and Michael Brown in 2014. The defendants in both cases advanced cogent arguments that disclosure of the police investigatory reports would impede future investigations. Then and now, on balance, the public interest favors disclosure. The record in this case is devoid of evidence that disclosure would harm any specific individual.”


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