DES MOINES, Iowa (Ryan J. Foley, AP) — The Iowa Department of Public Safety will hand over records to a federal grand jury investigating a trooper’s misconduct after unsuccessfully fighting a subpoena for months, a state spokesman said Friday.
A grand jury last year began looking into whether an Iowa State Patrol officer with a history of misconduct complaints had violated anyone’s civil rights, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals revealed in a ruling Thursday.
That officer is identified only as “John Doe” and the details of the grand jury investigation remain secret. The ruling says the investigation centers on “possible civil rights violations,” which can include using excessive force, making false arrests and fabricating evidence.
The grand jury issued a subpoena last August seeking records from the Iowa Department of Public Safety, the patrol’s parent agency.
The subpoena sought records related to allegations against John Doe, including policy, legal and use of force violations. It requested the findings of all investigations, details of discipline imposed and complaints filed by the public and the officer’s colleagues.
The department produced some records but refused to release any internal affairs documents, going to court in an effort to quash the subpoena.
The department argued that the records would give the grand jury “investigative leads” that would violate officers’ right against self-incrimination. Officers are ordered to answer questions during internal investigations but promised that the information will not be used in criminal prosecutions.
The department claimed that officers would never report problems or cooperate if they knew their statements could be used to indict a colleague. That silence would undermine efforts to prevent misconduct and intervene with problem officers, state lawyers argued.
In a sealed ruling last November, District Judge John Jarvey rejected those arguments as speculative and ordered the department to comply with the subpoena.
He found that the records would likely be valuable to the grand jury because they include contemporaneous statements about incidents and information about prior conduct that may show whether an officer acted willfully.
Jarvey held the department in contempt of court for defying the subpoena, which allowed it to appeal to the 8th Circuit.
A three-judge panel upheld Jarvey’s ruling Thursday, saying the department failed to show that the subpoena was unreasonable and complying should not affect internal investigations.
If an officer is indicted, he will be entitled to a hearing at which prosecutors must prove the charges are not based on previously compelled statements, the ruling noted.
Department spokeswoman Debbie McClung referred questions to the Iowa attorney general’s office, which represents the department in court.
Spokesman Lynn Hicks said Friday the department will now produce the materials requested by the grand jury.
He said it had been unclear in the 8th Circuit whether grand juries were entitled to such records, “so this action helped clarify the legal standards governing this very important issue going forward.”
While the investigation is secret, it started amid outrage over the actions of former trooper Robert Smith, who left the patrol in 2018 after a 30-year career. One defense lawyer alleged that Smith faced two dozen internal affairs investigations during his career.
A video released last summer showed Smith assaulting a motorcyclist during a 2017 traffic stop, pointing his gun at him for no apparent reason, knocking him down and putting his knee on the man’s neck.
Smith falsely accused the motorcyclist of trying to flee and arrested him. Several critics, including a county sheriff, called for a criminal investigation of Smith.
The motorcyclist said he suffered neck injuries and has filed a lawsuit against the state and Smith. The lawsuit remains pending in federal court and is being defended by the attorney general’s office.
After release of the video, Smith resigned from the police department in the small town of Durant, where he was hired after leaving the patrol. He had been accused of using excessive force against a woman during an arrest shortly after his hiring.