DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – A federal judge ruled Tuesday that body-camera footage and other records related to an officer’s fatal shooting of an Iowa woman three years ago will be unsealed and made public.
The Burlington Hawk Eye and other Iowa news organizations have fought to get the complete video from the body camera and related documents since the January 2015 shooting of Autumn Steele, 34, by Burlington police officer Jesse Hill.
Hill had gone to Steele’s residence in response to a domestic disturbance call when he was attacked by a dog. Hill drew his weapon to shoot the dog but slipped on ice while firing and fatally shot Steele.
The city released a 12-second clip of the video but refused to make public Hill’s entire video, as well as footage from a second officer’s body camera and other police records in the case.
News media and open-government groups in Iowa have argued the video and documents should be made public since the investigation is concluded and no charges were filed against Hill, who remains on the city’s police force.
The video and related documents were, however, filed under a protective order as part of a civil lawsuit brought by Steele’s family against the city in the Southern District of Iowa. The parties settled the case for $2 million, but in the meantime the Iowa Freedom of Information Council intervened in the case, arguing that the documents should be unsealed.
U.S. District Judge James E. Gritzner agreed, issuing an 18-page ruling Tuesday that the documents are judicial records and as such are “presumptively” public records.
Gritzner said he will unseal the records after giving the parties an opportunity to suggest redactions of certain personally identifying information, such as Social Security numbers and birth dates.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, applauded Gritzner’s decision Wednesday. The FOI Council – a statewide nonprofit organization made up of journalists, lawyers, educators and other Iowans devoted to open government and government accountability – was represented by Michael Giudicessi of Faegre Baker Daniels in Des Moines, who has also represented Courthouse News.
“The Iowa FOI Council intervened in the federal wrongful-death lawsuit because we saw that as the public’s best hope for gaining access to the police video, 911 calls and other materials gathered in the investigation of this tragic death,” Evans said in an email. “Cutting the public off from access only served to cast suspicion on the handling of this case by the city of Burlington, by the county prosecutor and by state investigators. Government is not going to build public trust in law enforcement by the use of secrecy.”
The city of Burlington referred questions to its attorneys at Betty, Neuman & McMahon of Davenport, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Burlington had argued that the documents were filed as part of the summary-judgment proceedings, which the court had not ruled on before the parties settled, and thus are not court records.
Judge Gritzner rejected that argument, saying numerous federal appeals courts have held that records filed in support of or opposition to summary judgment are judicial records with or without a judgment.
“The logic behind this principle is sound,” he wrote. “If judgment by the court was a precondition to judicial record status, numerous pleadings and other filings relating to merit-based motions would never be available for public scrutiny, leaving the general public in the dark about the core issues that drive a lawsuit.”
Gritzner said the public nature of the Steele case adds weight to the argument that the court records should be unsealed.
“The fact that this case concerns alleged wrongdoing involving a public entity, the city, and one of its officials, Officer Hill, lends additional weight to the presumption” of openness, he wrote.
Gritzner also disagreed with the city’s argument that the records must be kept under seal by the court because they are confidential under Iowa’s open-records law.
“This argument is problematic in several respects,” he wrote.
The documents filed with the motions for summary judgment are judicial records belonging to the court, the judge noted.
“If the court’s judicial records were beholden to Iowa’s confidentiality rubric, then certain records filed in conjunction with motions for summary judgment could never be released,” he said, even if those records carry the strongest presumption of access.
“This plainly conflicts with the federal common-law right of access to judicial records,” Gritzner wrote.