Judge John Telleen of the Seventh Judicial District on Monday ruled in favor of Sycamore Media, owner of the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press, in its quest to obtain Maquoketa Police Department video footage taken at a 911 call involving Amanda Lassance, Jackson County’s assistant attorney.
“This information will give the public a fuller understanding of the incident in question,” Telleen wrote in his ruling, which outlined several reasons he decided releasing the footage serves the public’s interest. Under Iowa Code Chapter 22, the state’s open records law, the police department had the burden of proving why the video should not be released. Public records are generally available to the public, subject to specified exceptions.
Telleen noted “the central incident of this case raises an allegation that a prosecutor received lenient treatment when she herself was discovered committing a criminal offense.” In addition, the investigation is officially closed, no further charges are being considered, and the case does not involve a confidential informant.
“Although Maquoketa police officers had only limited involvement in the incident and no control over the ultimate charging decision, the records they generated are significant because Maquoketa police officers were the first to arrive on the scene and interact with Lassance. Their squad car and body camera footage will show a portion of the incident not found in the public records already provided by the Clinton and Jackson County sheriff’s departments. This information will give the public a fuller understanding of the incident in question,” Telleen wrote.
Telleen heard arguments June 9 for the lawsuit that was filed in November in the Iowa District Court for Jackson County after Maquoketa Police Chief Brad Koranda last summer refused to release the footage the Sentinel-Press requested. The newspaper appealed to the Maquoketa City Council to intervene before filing suit, but the request went unanswered.
Molly Parker and Sam Jones of Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, P.C. in Cedar Rapids, represented the newspaper. Matthew Novak, of Pickens, Barns & Abernathy in Cedar Rapids, represented the city.
Among Novak’s arguments against the newspaper’s request at the initial hearing was that Maquoketa Police Department officers were not in charge of the investigation and responded first to the emergency call only because they were closer to the scene than any other officers.
Telleen noted the case involves officers of the law and possible favoritism and questioned Novak as to why the public should not be able to see for itself what happened rather than just taking the city’s word for it.
“The prosecutor primarily in charge of prosecuting the misdemeanor OWIs and felony OWIs in Jackson County is seated in the driver’s seat of the vehicle, empty beer cans everywhere, apparently smells like beer, not given a field sobriety test, not given a pbt (preliminary breath test), and is driven to, of all places, the Jackson County courthouse…. unfortunately, it seems to cry out that there was favorable treatment by one law enforcement officer to another,” he said.
Novak also pointed out there are no allegations that any Maquoketa police officer did anything inappropriate, and that the newspaper’s coverage has focused on the conduct of Clinton and Jackson county sheriff’s departments.
“I get the idea that what they’re saying is ‘Yeah, you tell us there’s no allegation that anything that was done was improper. You tell us that, but why can’t we see that for ourselves and not have to take it on face value from what you tell us?” Telleen said of the newspaper’s position at the hearing.
Maquoketa Mayor Don Schwenker and City Manager Gerald Smith said Monday night that they had not seen the ruling and wanted to review it before commenting.
Koranda did not respond to a request for comment Monday evening.
Trevis Mayfield, publisher of the Sentinel-Press, said the ruling shows respect for the public’s need for access to information that shows how law enforcement officials do their jobs.
“If it were easier for people to see how police operate and how public officials conduct themselves, a lot of problems our society has today would go away,” Mayfield said. “Transparency is a perfect medicine in all kinds of ways.”
The Sentinel-Press first reported on the 911 call involving Lassance in April 2019 when Clinton County Sheriff’s Deputy Andy Petersen cited Lassance and her companion, Nick Shannon, for having open containers of alcohol in Lassance’s car after responding to Shannon’s call to Jackson County Dispatch. Deputies from both Jackson and Clinton counties and officers from Maquoketa and Bellevue responded to the complaint that took place on U.S. Highway 61, just south of the Clinton/Jackson county line. At least six police units from four jurisdictions responded to the call just after midnight the morning of April 6.
According to dispatch records, Shannon told police Lassance’s car was stopped along the road and that Lassance had attacked him. Lassance, according to police reports, was sitting in the driver’s seat of the parked car when police arrived and found beer cans strewn about.
Because Lassance was slurring her speech and her eyes were bloodshot and watery, Petersen wrote in his report that he was prepared to administer a sobriety test, but after Lassance told him she had been drinking after she had stopped the car, he changed his mind. Petersen wrote in his report he believed Lassance telling him she had been drinking after the car stopped would make the case difficult to prosecute.
Lassance and Shannon both pleaded guilty to Clinton County citations of having open containers of alcohol in a vehicle and faced no other charges.
The Sentinel-Press received footage taken by Petersen’s dashcam from Clinton County after an open records request was initially denied, but later granted. That footage showed Petersen dropping Lassance off at the Jackson County Courthouse, where she spent the night in her office. Petersen can be heard in the video telling Lassance to make sure she does not go into the sheriff’s office because “they don’t want you to get in more trouble than you already are.”
The newspaper also received about five minutes of footage recorded by Jackson County Deputy Chad Roeder, who was on the scene for 37 minutes. The footage from the Maquoketa Police Department is the only known video that has not been released publicly. Bellevue police officers do not wear body cameras.
The Sentinel-Press is waiting to hear details on when the video footage will be provided.
The newspaper plans to seek recovery of all fees in the case.