IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A judge dismissed a rarely used felony leak charge Thursday against a Black Lives Matter activist in Iowa who gave a confidential police document to a local television news reporter.
Protester Viet Tran did not break the law when he shared a Des Moines Police Department bulletin during an interview broadcast on WOI-TV, an ABC affiliate, Judge Jeffrey Farrell found.
Tran had been charged last summer with unauthorized dissemination of intelligence data, a felony that carries up to five years in prison. The decades-old law, intended to stop law enforcement officials from releasing certain sensitive information, had only been used a handful of times and never in a non-police context.
During a protest outside the county jail last July, Tran discussed and displayed the police document in an interview with WOI-TV reporter Eva Andersen.
The bulletin included photos of 13 suspects who were wanted for the destruction of a Des Moines police car during a June 20 protest outside a grocery store. Officers and state troopers had carried the bulletins with them while patrolling a July 1 protest at the Iowa Capitol, seeking to identify and arrest those involved.
Police allege that activist Alexandria Dea stole one of the bulletins from an officer’s back pocket during a scuffle between officers and protesters, before Tran obtained it and gave the document to the reporter. Like Tran, Dea was charged with unauthorized dissemination of intelligence data.
Civil rights activists argued that Polk County Attorney John Sarcone’s office overstepped by filing the charge against protesters, saying they weren’t bound by the law. The television reporter was not charged, even though she broadcast the document and posted photos of it on her Twitter account.
Farrell ruled Thursday that the document in question did not include any intelligence data, which is defined under Iowa law as information compiled about individuals to prevent or monitor possible criminal activity. He said it only contained “criminal investigative data” since it referred to criminal acts that had already occurred.
“Because the bulletin at issue in this case is not intelligence data, any dissemination of the bulletin is not a crime,” Farrell wrote.
Farrell noted that the document was labeled an “intelligence report” and contained a warning that “no portion of this communication should be released to non-law-enforcement organizations, the media or the general public.” But he said the department’s designation does not control how it should be classified, and that criminal laws must be “strictly construed in favor of the accused.”
Farrell said that he didn’t need to consider Tran’s arguments that persons outside law enforcement have no duty to protect intelligence data, or that the law is unconstitutional on free speech grounds. He ordered the case against Tran to be dismissed and assessed costs against the state.
Tran had been jailed for three weeks after he was arrested on the charge last summer and accused of violating his probation in an earlier case. A prosecutor had called him a “threat to public safety,” saying he had posted threats on social media toward police and television stations. A judge allowed his release on the condition that he wear a GPS monitor.
Thursday’s ruling is the latest setback for Sarcone, a long-serving Democrat whose office has had a series of cases dismissed or result in acquittal in recent months. A jury in March acquitted a Des Moines Register reporter who was pepper-sprayed and arrested by police on misdemeanor charges while covering a Black Lives Matter protest.
Sarcone’s office is still prosecuting Dea, 27, on the leak charge and a felony theft charge for allegedly stealing the bulletin and throwing an officer’s police radio. She has drawn a different judge and is awaiting trial.
Assistant Polk County Attorney Thomas Miller said in a recent court filing that the leak law had only been successfully applied twice, both times against law enforcement officials in the 1980s. The only other known time it was filed was in 2016, when a sheriff’s office employee was charged with leaking information to suspects in drug and drunken driving cases but ended up pleading to a lesser offense.
“The court is not constrained by this limited prior use of this statute,” Miller argued.
He wrote that the law applied to anyone who disseminated intelligence information and could be used against reporters in certain scenarios. Police used their discretion in declining to recommend charges against Andersen, he said.