All of Iowa?s criminal trials should be open to the public

Des Moines Register, Dec. 15

All of Iowa?s criminal trials should be open to the public


Imagine a court system in which people can plead not guilty to crime and then have their case decided by a judge based on a review of evidence that by law must be kept secret.

That could very well happen in the sexual exploitation trial of Mary Beth Haglin, a 24-year-old substitute teacher who has acknowledged having a months-long affair with a 17-year-old student, and discussed the particulars of that relationship on ?Inside Edition? and ?Dr. Phil.?

In an apparent deal with Haglin, Linn County prosecutors have agreed to have her guilt or innocence determined not during a public trial, but through a ?stipulated trial? in which a judge will review the prosecution?s written ?minutes of testimony,? a document that summarizes the state?s evidence, and then issue a verdict.

It?s easy to see why Haglin and the prosecutors might prefer a stipulated trial. It enables Haglin to preserve certain avenues of appeal because there is no guilty plea, and the prosecution can avoid the time and expense of a public trial.

Here?s the problem: In Iowa, the minutes of testimony ? i.e., the evidence that?s to be weighed by the judge ? is, by state law, a confidential document that?s accessible only to the prosecution, the defense and the judge.

Historically, that has created issues in Iowa counties where prosecutors deliberately place the most basic, elemental facts of what transpired ? the who, what, when, where and how of a crime ? only in the sealed minutes of testimony. It?s a tactic that makes it impossible for the press and the public to see why a person has been charged with a crime or whether a prosecutor?s decision to pursue a plea bargain is actually justified.

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone has defended the practice by saying his office doesn?t want to ?get into a media game? by making specific allegations public or ?trying cases in the press.?

But hiding basic information in a sealed document becomes a much larger problem when confidential records are used not only by the prosecution to justify a criminal charge, but by a judge to determine guilt.

And that?s what happens when a ?stipulated trial? takes place. Despite the U.S. Constitution?s First Amendment guarantee of open criminal trials ? a right that belongs to the public and the press, and which cannot be waived by a defendant ? a stipulated trial in Iowa involves the private consideration of evidence that is sealed not just from the press, but from the public, which is a group that includes crime victims.

No, it?s not as if the courtroom doors are being locked. It?s worse than that: There is no courtroom trial at all. A stipulated trial might involve a judge reading the minutes of testimony in his or her pajamas at home, if not in chambers, even as the evidence that?s being considered remains sealed from public view.

In 1948, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black articulated the importance of open criminal trials when he argued they provide a public demonstration of fairness; they curb misconduct on the part of judges and attorneys; they lessen the likelihood of perjury by witnesses; and they discourage decisions based on bias or prejudice.

Open criminal trials have ?always been recognized as a safeguard against any attempt to employ our courts as instruments of persecution,? Black wrote. ?The knowledge that every criminal trial is subject to contemporaneous review in the forum of public opinion is an effective restraint on possible abuse of judicial power.?

In the Haglin case, Sixth Judicial District Judge Kevin McKeever has given the Cedar Rapids Gazette a general description of what is contained in the minutes of testimony: a Child Protection Center interview with the victim, and Haglin?s interview with police. McKeever said he intends to issue his ruling in the case soon and will announce the verdict, which will include his factual findings, in open court.

McKeever told the Des Moines Register a judge can consider more than just the confidential minutes of testimony in a stipulated trial, but he acknowledged that this other evidence might also be kept secret.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden says he?s not sure anyone other than a defendant has a constitutional right to argue that a criminal trial be open. ?I think the right to open trials is a right afforded to the defendant,? he said. ?It?s a personal right, a constitutional right of the defendant, who can then waive that right.?

McKeever at least recognizes the public?s First Amendment right to open court proceedings, but says his primary concern is with the rights of the defendant. In that regard, both the prosecutor and the judge seem to have little regard for the value of public oversight and accountability.

?We really need to protect everyone?s constitutional rights, but not at the expense of the defendant?s rights,? McKeever says. ?Let?s face it, after the reporters go home, after the public goes home, if the defendant is convicted, they are the ones who have to possibly face the consequences, not the public and not the press. I really don?t think it?s appropriate for others to interfere.?

The trouble is, no one?s access to a fair trial can be assured in a court system that confuses oversight with interference. A system that allows for private criminal ?trials,? with the evidence sealed from public view, is a system in need of reform.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Dec. 16

Civil asset forfeiture gets bad rating in Iowa

That civil asset forfeiture, allowing law enforcement to seize money or property without criminal charges or convictions, has run amok is something that has produced bipartisan agreement but little action.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the American Conservative Union Foundation and the Americans for Tax Reform have sought federal reform to no avail.

Among the states, Iowa is a prime offender, earning a D-minus from the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, libertarian public interest law firm.

State legislators have failed to thwart this affront to civil liberties, but bureaucrats reined in one aspect recently. The Iowa State Patrol disbanded its so-called ?interdiction? unit stopping motorists suspected of involvement in drugs or other crimes.

Meanwhile, in a supposedly unrelated action, the Iowa Appeal Board ? State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, State Auditor Mary Mosiman and Iowa Department of Management Director Dave Roederer ? announced a $60,000 settlement with two California gamblers in their lawsuit after two state troopers seized $102,000 during a warrantless search in 2013.

After a stop supposedly for not using a lane-turn signal, the troopers found a small amount of marijuana, although the gamblers had a California license for its medical use. The state previously returned $90,000.

Civil asset forfeiture was a creation of the anti-drug frenzy of the 1980s that birthed such draconian laws as the mandatory sentencing guidelines that have made the U.S. the world leader in incarcerations.

A 1984 amendment to the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act gave law enforcement additional tools to pursue drug kingpins by letting agencies keep 80 percent of the booty seized. The intent was to pursue money-laundering activities by drug kingpins.


States, including Iowa, followed suit, but the law soon was adapted to confiscate valuables in a variety of cases, including seizing cars from co-titled owners when the other was convicted of drunken driving in Minnesota.

The Iowa Code stipulates law enforcement agencies must show the property was likely obtained as a result of criminal conduct or intended to facilitate criminal conduct. Criminal charges, indictments or convictions aren?t required before property can be confiscated.

Consequently, you?re guilty until proven innocent ? without the right to an attorney.

The Des Moines Register found state law enforcement agencies annually confiscate cash, cars and real estate from at least 1,000 people as part of the program compared to the 1980s when there were fewer than two dozen cases annually. Among the more notorious cases:

Michael Sanchez-Ratliff left Chicago to attend a California community college with $14,000 from his grandmother and $5,000 from his savings. A Pottawattamie County sheriff?s deputy stopped him for driving 5 mph over the speed limit. He had no drugs, but it took him two years and $7,000 in attorney?s fees to get his money back.

California businessman Phillip Flora is suing Pottawattamie County law enforcement officials after a 2015 traffic stop for supposedly going 4 mph over the speed limit, seizing $120,000 after allegedly finding drugs and ?destroying the purported evidence? without filing criminal charges.

Iowa divides 90 percent of the assets seized among agencies involved. The state Attorney General?s office and public safety departments get the remainder.

Four of Iowa?s 99 counties ? Polk, Pottawattamie, Scott and Black Hawk ? have accounted for nearly 60 percent of the more than $55 million confiscated under Iowa?s forfeiture law since 1985. According to the Register, Iowa civil asset forfeiture has resulted in:

More than $55 million in cash ? from 34 cents to nearly $2.6 million ? being seized from 19,000 people since 1985.

More than 4,200 automobiles, trucks and motorcycles confiscated since the state began tracking such vehicles in 1991.


Quad-City Times . December 16, 2016

Endorsement: Vote Lykam for Iowa Senate.

Rep. Jim Lykam, D-Davenport, knows a thing or two about navigating politics while in the legislative minority. He?s a pragmatist who, for years, understands the nuts-and-bolts of government, best shown on the Iowa House Transportation Committee.

The eight-term Democrat will make a solid replacement for the late state Sen. Joe Seng in Iowa?s 45th District.

Lykam is no radical tax-and-spend lefty. Nor is he flashy. He simply understands the limits of government and the consequences of over-regulation on business. Yet, he also realizes the flip side of that equation: That a complete lack of oversight leaves his constituents open to fraud and abuse. His will be an important role in Iowa?s new GOP-run Statehouse. Only a coalition of center-right Republicans and vocal, consensus-building can protect the state against budget busting tax cuts and water-polluting deregulation.

Lykam faces Republican Mike Gonzales and Libertarian Severin Gilbert in the Dec. 27 special election. The LeClaire police officer Gonzales is earnest and likable. He?s clearly passionate about politics and his faith. But he?s also a first-time candidate, running in a special election on a truncated timetable. Gonzales isn?t capable of getting specific about Iowa?s budget and it?s sudden $100 million shortfall. His answers fell short on the water quality issues that plague the state. Gonzales was less than stalwart in his support for Davenport Community School District and its Superintendent Art Tate, who only wants funding equity. His finest moments were while addressing what he knows, particularly the finer points of police work. We saw the very same potential in Gonzalez that Scott County Republicans did when they chose him to run for this solidly Democratic seat. And even then ? while addressing the need to update state Freedom of Information Act to clarify police body cameras ? Gonzales? answer that government shouldn?t be involved showed a brash disrespect for civilian oversight.

Gonzales just isn?t ready. If nothing else, the mad-dash campaign will better prepare him for a future run, maybe even for Lykam?s vacated House seat. Of course, voters must first show up two days after Christmas.

Gilbert declined to meet with the editorial board.

Perhaps of greatest import, Lykam is prepared to defend Iowans against a coming culture war now that the GOP holds total control of the Capitol. It?s an exceedingly important role as some wings of the GOP continue rightward. Democracy only works with strong opposition.

The rumbles are already growing in Des Moines about a slew of bills that, for one reason or another, would rob Iowans of rights and access to power. Davenport residents should expect a voter ID law to see the floor in the new session. Research shows that voter fraud is almost non-existent. Courts continually conclude that these laws exist solely to disenfranchise minority voters, which disproportionately attacks urban centers such as Quad-Cities. But the facts won?t matter for the GOP?s right-flank. Ideology trumps truth.

Same goes for probable attacks on the reproductive rights of half the state?s population. Don?t be surprised if draconian restrictions on abortion ? almost exclusively targeting poor women ? see the light of day. Here, too, the courts have ruled similar laws in other states violate the U.S. Constitution. That won?t matter as some on the fringe try to force a narrow religious view down everyone?s throat.

?It?s your god, your family, your conscience,? Lykam rightly said. ?I don?t want to regulate people?s bedrooms.?

That?s precisely the type of measured, inclusive voice the residents of Iowa?s 45th District should send to the state Senate on Dec. 27.


Mason City Globe Gazette. December 15, 2016

So many reasons to aid Cheer fund in North Iowa.

We know some of you will procrastinate with your Christmas shopping. But for many of us this will be the last big weekend of shopping before we settle in to enjoy time with family and friends.

While you?re running to and fro, we?d like you to pause for just a minute to consider a gift to the Cheer Fund, which could use a boost going down the stretch toward Christmas.

The Cheer Fund operates out of Globe Gazette offices. It?s where applications are dropped off and where gift cards are mailed out of. All the money we receive goes to those in need. And from reading the many applications, the need is great, such as:

. A 69-year-old woman who lost her home over a year ago and needs food. She simply would like to be able to buy a fruitcake.

. A woman, 59, who lives alone and on a fixed income, and who looks to the Cheer Fund for food to get her through the month.

. A father, 38, who says money is tight for his family of four and who would like to be able to buy presents for his children. ?We can?t afford any,? he said.

. An 86-year-old woman who is ?praying for Christmas to help me.?

. A man who is unemployed due to cancer and chemotherapy would like a Cheer Fund gift to buy food and/or gifts for his four children under age 16.

Stories like these and hundreds of others are why we do the Cheer Fund, why we count on people in North Iowa and across the country for help.