If officials want trust, records should be open to public

What constitutes probable cause for police to administer a sobriety test?

For those of you who are skeptical of authority, you might suspect that the answer depends on who you are, and you might be right.

For the average citizen, you might assume that an open can or bottle of booze in a car would probably do it.

Having someone call police and report that your car is on the roadside and that you have been drinking would probably do it, too.

If both of those things happened at once, it seems like a no-brainer. 

But, if you are part of the law enforcement establishment – a county prosecutor, perhaps — and find yourself on the wrong end of a police call, it appears the standard for probable cause might be a little different.

One would hope that is not how it works here in Eastern Iowa, but the way the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department handled a call involving Jackson County’s assistant attorney, Amanda Lassance, forces a thinking mind to wonder.

Lassance, who regularly prosecutes drunk driving cases in Jackson County, became embroiled in an unfortunate situation when Nick Shannon, who identified himself to police as her boyfriend, called police in the middle of the night from the right-of-way along U.S. Highway 61 in northern Clinton County to report that they had been drinking and that she had attacked him.

According to what a Jackson County police dispatcher wrote on the call log, Shannon said he was holding a beer as he made the call, not a statement sober people generally make when calling the police.

When police arrived at the scene, they apparently found at least one open container of alcohol in the car, because they cited both Lassance and Shannon for exactly that. But, for some reason, it seems that police did not administer a sobriety test of any kind to either of them.

Apparently, an open container of alcohol, a report of domestic violence and what sounds like a self-incriminating statement made along a public roadway during the middle of the night did not, in this case, constitute enough evidence to justify sobriety tests. A skeptical person might come to the hypothesis that police didn’t conduct sobriety tests because they didn’t want to know the results. 

That likely means we will never know if Lassance had been drinking before her car came to a stop.

Those inclined to grasp hold of conspiracy theories of favoritism and cronyism will find little relief from their tendencies in the explanations and assurances of Clinton County Sheriff Rick Lincoln and Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf.

When asked if a sobriety test was administered, Lincoln brushed off the question, saying he assumed not since there was no record of it. 

Without offering to look into it further, he expressed total confidence in his deputies. 

“Without looking or talking to the deputies that were there, I can’t answer why they didn’t do it,” Lincoln said. “But I know those deputies. If they had a reason to believe they could do so and felt it necessary, they would have. I have full faith my deputies were acting in full accordance of what they believe they could do to make a case, so they must have had reason to believe they didn’t.”

That’s nice, but it does little to help a skeptical citizen have confidence in the system.

It also doesn’t boost confidence that Lincoln and Wolf have denied an open records request for deputies’ video footage, which could provide the public with a clearer picture of Lassance’s sobriety at the scene.

Wolf, employing a say-nothing-nicely approach, explained to a Sentinel-Press reporter that he did not mean to be disrespectful while telling her that he could “only speak to filings I have in court.”  

In reality, though, there is nothing preventing Wolf from answering questions. He just doesn’t want to.

Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, put it well when he explained that the law enforcement community is not prohibited from releasing details of cases, especially when it’s unlikely the investigation is ongoing.

“When law enforcement becomes secretive and doesn’t respond to logical questions the public has,” Evans said “that gives rise to speculation that some people get special treatment.”

The lack of openness from Wolf, no matter how kindly he doesn’t answer the important questions, adds additional fuel for those who doubt.

So does one final thing. When asked how Lassance got home the night of the incident, Lincoln said he believed “they [deputies] gave her [Lassance] a ride to a location in Maquoketa.”

Hmmm. Why would they have done that? 

Lincoln and Wolf should reconsider their positions. If there is nothing embarrassing in the video footage, why not make it public? It’s the only way skeptics will be able to believe.