Officials in Sac County, Iowa are refusing to provide footage from law enforcement body cameras and dashboard cameras related to State Senator Adrian Dickey’s arrest last month during RAGBRAI.
Dickey was charged with interference with official acts (a simple misdemeanor) after allegedly refusing to comply with a deputy sheriff’s request to move along a rural road a “big party” of bicyclists were blocking.
The day after learning about Dickey’s arrest, I requested relevant records from the Sac County Sheriff’s Office, including copies of body camera and squad car dash camera video from all deputy sheriffs who were present during the incident, as well as audio and video recordings from the jail where the senator was booked. I noted the high public interest in this case, because the defendant is a member of the Iowa legislature.
Responding on behalf of Sheriff Ken McClure, Sac County Attorney Ben Smith said he could not provide the information. He cited Iowa Code Section 22.7(5), a provision in the open records law that declares peace officer’s investigative reports are confidential.
A BALANCING TEST FOR INVESTIGATIVE FILES
Smith directed me to an Iowa Public Information Board advisory opinion from 2019 to support his reading of the law. He noted that the criminal complaint for Dickey’s case provided the “date, time, specific location, and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding the incident.” (The statute declares that such details “shall not be kept confidential,” except in “unusual circumstances” where disclosure would jeopardize an investigation or endanger an individual.)
On August 14, I asked Smith to reconsider his interpretation of the code section, in light of several Iowa Supreme Court decisions involving investigative files. In the Hawk Eye v. Jackson case from 1994, the court held that the privilege cloaking communications in officers’ investigative files “is qualified, not absolute.” The unanimous decision went on to say:
Determining where the line falls between public harm and public good requires weighing the relative merits of the interests at stake. We have long recognized that confidentiality encourages persons to come forward with information, whether substantiated or not, that might be used to solve crimes and deter criminal activity. Shanahan, 356 N.W.2d at 529. Secrecy is especially vital where reports are based on confidential informants, persons indispensable to successful police work but who frequently fear intimidation and reprisal. Id. at 529-30. Furthermore, nondisclosure permits law enforcement officials the necessary privacy to discuss findings and theories about cases under investigation. Id. at 529.
In the 2019 case Mitchell v. Cedar Rapids, a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court (with different justices) stated, “We hold that Hawk Eye remains the controlling precedent for disputes over access to police investigative reports.” The justices found the factors in Mitchell’s case weighed in favor of disclosing the disputed reports: “the police investigation had been completed without any confidential informant or unidentified suspect,” and there was great public interest in police shootings.
In last year’s case known as Michelle Vaccaro v. Polk County, a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court again stated, “We employ a case-specific balancing test to guard against the chilling effect public disclosure could have on police investigations.”
I argued that the balancing test favors disclosure of camera footage and other materials related to Dickey’s arrest.
Public interest in the case is high, because it’s rare for a sitting state legislator to be arrested.
Senator Dickey and his attorney have implied the incident was a big misunderstanding. The public deserves to know whether that is the case, or whether Senator Dickey’s behavior warranted an arrest and misdemeanor charge.
The case does not involve any confidential informants and does not rest on members of the public coming forward with tips. Nor is it the kind of case where law enforcement would need “privacy to discuss findings and theories” about what happened on the country road. The incident unfolded in the plain view of several peace officers and numerous members of the public.
ATTORNEY ARGUES DISCLOSURE COULD PREJUDICE RIGHT TO FAIR TRIAL
Smith replied on August 17 that after “careful consideration,” his decision remained the same. “While I recognize the importance of transparency and the role of the media in informing the public, there are certain limitations and constraints to which I must adhere.”
He clarified in a subsequent message, “I believe many considerations outweigh the public’s interest in knowing.”
Foremost is ensuring the defendant has a fair trial. As in all criminal prosecutions, real concerns exist that the public disclosure of evidence will prejudice a defendant’s right to a fair trial. As a prosecutor, I have an ethical obligation under our rules to refrain from taking action that will have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused. Put simply, an Iowa citizen’s Constitutional right to a fair trial outweighs the disclosure of confidential information.
Dickey’s trial is months away; a District Court judge has scheduled a pretrial conference hearing for October 31.
Asked whether he would release the camera footage following the trial, Smith said he would consider it but “can’t guarantee the records will be disclosed after a final disposition in the criminal case is entered.”
VIDEO WOULD SHOW “AUTHORITATIVE, IMPARTIAL VERSION” OF EVENTS
I attempted to narrow my request to cover body camera footage of the encounter that gave rise to the charge of interference with official acts. My reasoning was that such video would show “immediate facts and circumstances” surrounding the alleged crime, and would therefore fall under the language in Iowa Code section 22.7(5) describing what “shall not be kept confidential.”
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told Bleeding Heartland via email, “Public access to the officers’ video—whether that comes now or after his case is heard in court—would provide an authoritative, impartial version of the events that occurred along that rural road.”
He noted the attention to the case because of Dickey’s role in the legislature. “Refusing to make the video available may fuel assertions that Mr. Dickey was treated improperly or that the sheriff is intentionally keeping the public from seeing what is fact, or fiction, from that day.”
For Evans, “Declining to release the video invites public distrust in law enforcement.”