Iowa's Open Records Laws - What law enforcement does not want you to know

posted by on Thursday, May 15, 2008

Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code is entitled the "Iowa Fair Information Practices Act", commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information Act. This act states that: "Every person shall have the right to examine and copy a public record and to publish or otherwise disseminate a public record of the information contained in the public record. . ." (full text can be found at http://coolice.legis.state.ia.us/Cool-ICE/default.asp?category=billinfo&service=IowaCode&ga=82). In other words, the general public is entitled to inspect, copy and disseminate any thing that is classified as a public record within the possession of a public entity supported by taxpayer moneys. Specifically the law defines "public records" to include "all records, documents, tape or other information, stored or preserved in any medium of or belonging to this state or any county, city, township, school corporation, political subdivision. . ."

Why then do law enforcement agencies refuse to provide copies of police reports to the general public when a request is made? The simple answer is because they get away with it. There are a number of law enforcement agencies that refuse to provide people with police reports even from their own arrests or the arrests of their children without a subpoena or an attorney making the request. This is illegal! All that is required is a request in any form for the reports. However, police departments have been getting away with these policies for quite some time now and will continue to do something until they are taken to task. How then, can this be accomplished?

Iowa's Freedom of Information Laws have teeth that these disobedient or ignorant law enforcement agencies evidently have not seen enough. The provisions of Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code may be enforced through civil suit including Writ of Mandamus (requesting the court to order a governmental agency to do what they are required by law to do), Injunctive Relief (requesting the court to order the agency not to violate the law again), or through a Petition for Judicial Review. Once the party seeking judicial enforcement of Chapter 22 demonstrates to the court that the offending party is subject to the requirements of that chapter, that the records in question are government records, and that the defendant refused to make those government records available for examination and copying by a member of the public, the burden of going forward is placed on the offending party to demonstrate compliance with the requirements of Chapter 22.

If it is proven by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that the agency has violated the provisions of Freedom of Information Act the judge is required to do the following:

1. Issue an injunction punishable by civil contempt ordering compliance;
2. Assess the person who participated in the violation, damages not less than $100 but not more than $500;
3. Order the payment of all costs and reasonable attorneys fees, including appellate attorney fees; and
4. Issue an order removing a person from office if that person has engaged in two prior violations of Chapter 22 for which damages were assessed against the person during the persons term.

It is important to also important to note that ignorance of the legal requirements of the Freedom of Information act is not a defense for the offending party.

As you can see, the Freedom of Information Act is not something to be taken likely and law enforcement is playing with fire when refusing requests for police reports. While there are exceptions to the production of public records including an on-going investigation and rare cases in which a person security may be compromised, arrest reports for misdemeanors that have already been charged will not and do not fall under those exceptions. If law enforcement refuses your request for copies of police reports, do not hesitate to contact an attorney and seek judicial enforcement in District Court.