The attorney for the family of a woman killed by Burlington police in 2015 can continue his quest for video and audio records of the incident, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Adam Klein, representing the family of Autumn Steele, had sought various records from the Burlington Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. Steele, 34, died Jan. 6, 2015, after a Burlington police officer responding to a domestic dispute tried to shoot the family’s dog as it bit him, but missed and hit her instead. The officer was not criminally charged.
Burlington Police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation refused to provide the requested records, citing an Iowa law exempting “peace officers’ investigative reports” from disclosure. Klein then filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board.
After a lengthy and convoluted process, an administrative law judge found that the police agencies wrongly classified video from the scene and recordings of 911 calls as investigative reports, and recommended the board rule in Klein’s favor. Instead, the board’s 2019 decision held that the audio and visual records are exempt from disclosure.
Klein asked a district court to review that decision, but the court dismissed his petition, finding that he did not legally have standing to challenge the outcome of the dispute between the board and the agencies. Now represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, Klein appealed to the Supreme Court.
As noted by Justice Edward Mansfield, who wrote Thursday’s unanimous decision, this is one of the first cases involving the Iowa Public Information Board to come before the court since the board was established in 2012. Although the decision does not resolve the underlying question of what records should be kept confidential, it does answer several questions that could guide future cases before the agency.
First, the court ruled that Klein had the right to seek judicial review of the decision, even if he was not technically a party to the contested case between Burlington and the board, because it was his complaint that initiated the process. The decision means complainants will not need to formally intervene in their own case to have standing to challenge the results.
The court also ruled that Klein has standing to challenge the withholding of records that the board sought through its contested hearing process, namely body camera footage, dashboard camera footage and 911 calls. But because he did not intervene during the contested hearings, the court ruled he cannot on appeal seek additional records mentioned in his original complaint that were not addressed in the agency’s process.
Body camera footage and at least some 911 calls from the shooting have since been released in a separate federal lawsuit, which resulted in a $2 million settlement with Steele’s family. Klein, however, believes there may be other 911 calls that have not yet been released. Thursday’s decision means the case will go back to the district court to address the dash camera footage and any unreleased 911 calls.
ACLU Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said in a statement that the public’s interest in accessing public records “is at its apex” in a case involving the fatal shooting of an unarmed civilian, and that Thursday’s decision is a win for Iowans’ access to public records.
“Beyond that important result — allowing our client to seek any so-far unreleased bodycam, dashcam and 911 records regarding the shooting — the broader ruling is vital to ensuring access to public records, and preservation of due process, for Iowans who file complaints with the board,” Austen said.
Burlington City Manager Chad Bird declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.