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Iowa Lawmaker Calls For Review Of Public Records Law

John Pemble
IPR file

An Iowa lawmaker wants a review of the state’s public records law. The statements come as government watchdogs are trying to access records in the case of a woman killed by a police officer.

When a Burlington police officer shot and killed Autumn Steele in 2015, the incident was caught on a body camera. But portions of that video and other court records related to the case are sealed and not available to the public.

Even as a practicing attorney, Democratic Representative Mary Wolfe of Clinton said it’s not always clear when public documents are confidential. In practice, Wolfe said access to body cam footage is often handled on a case-by-case basis.

“Clearly what’s happening isn’t working. And it’s costing people…people have to sue to get information that arguably they should not have to sue to obtain,” Wolfe said.

The Iowa Freedom Information Council is currently petitioning a federal judge to unseal documents in the case of Autumn Steele. On June 12, 2018 the group filed a motion asking the judge to intervene.

"Despite clear mandates of law and the need in a democracy for the open and accountable administration of justice, the litigants here successfully have used this federal Court as a private forum by shielding substantive filings and information presented in evidence from public access, review, and scrutiny," the written complaint read.

Wolfe said clearing up confusion around what information Iowans can access can take time and legal reources, and can undermine public trust. 

“If we can nail down exactly what is and isn’t allowed, what is and isn’t required…I think that just makes…I think that’s just in everyone’s best interest,” Wolfe said.

If re-elected in November, Wolfe said she’ll push for a special committee to review the state’s open records law. Wolfe's previous plan to reassess Iowa's confidential records provisions did not make it through the 2018 legislative session.