Judge observes Des Moines officer smirking, rules testimony not credible in racial bias case
A Des Moines officer who faces a lawsuit accusing him of racial profiling in making a traffic stop has been ruled not credible in a separate criminal case in which a racially biased stop was alleged.
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A Des Moines police officer taken off patrol in October after being accused of racial profiling in an ongoing civil rights lawsuit has been found not credible by a Polk County magistrate judge in a separate criminal case in which racial profiling also was alleged.
Magistrate Judge Heather Dickinson ruled last month that Officer Kyle Thies did not have probable cause to begin following driver Courtney Saunders, a 29-year-old black man who Thies said parked too close to a fire hydrant. During the stop, Thies spotted an unsealed liquor bottle in the back seat and gave Saunders a ticket for driving with an open container. Dickinson dismissed the charge.
“The court did not find Officer Thies’ testimony credible, and numerous times during his testimony the court observed that he appeared to be smirking,” Dickinson wrote in her March 21 ruling.
Meanwhile, another black motorist detained by Thies, Ryan Collier, 40, has alleged to the Des Moines Register that Thies did so on the basis of race.
Des Moines police — including Thies — have declined to comment on the accusations, citing ongoing litigation.
Civil rights advocates say the cases involving Thies underscore a pervasive problem of racially based traffic stops that helps explain why Iowa perennially has one of the nation’s highest rates of incarcerations of black people.
Thies has become a focal point in Iowa advocates' push for stepped-up efforts to prevent racially based traffic stops. Last year, social justice organization Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement released a video viewed more than 10 million times online of Thies making what CCI contends are untrue or unfair observations to justify the search of a car driven by Montray Little, a 23-year-old black man.
Little and his passenger, Jared Clinton, filed the civil rights lawsuit against Thies in August, alleging that there was no justified reason for the stop and that the search was illegal.
Civil rights advocates have called on the city of Des Moines and state lawmakers to require documentation of race for anyone detained by law enforcement, especially in instances where no arrests are made and where police reports, which generally identify race, are not filed.
Such data would help identify officers or departments who unfairly stop minorities and could lead to corrective training, they say.
“I call it the ‘womb to prison pipeline,’” said Laural Clinton, the mother of one of the men involved in the lawsuit, referencing a phrase used to describe systemic racial injustice. Clinton is also a member of a racial justice team that CCI coordinates.
“A lot of these stops aren’t reported, and unless your children tell you this has occurred, the public doesn’t know, and most people don’t believe it happens,” she said.
A video that launched a movement
That video shows Thies saying he believes passenger Jared Clinton — Laural Clinton’s 22-year-old son — is carrying weapons because he is “acting funny.” Thies alleges he smelled marijuana before ordering the men out of the car, searching them and placing Little in handcuffs.
No illegal drugs or weapons were found during the July 15, 2018, search, and no criminal charges were filed against either man.
In 2017, Thies was responsible for 253 arrests. About half — 127 of those arrested — were black. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11% of Des Moines residents identify as black or African American.
Such statistics are not proof of racial bias, the Manhattan Institute and similar groups have long cautioned.
Officers generally don’t base their crime-fighting strategies on census data, but instead go where the crime is. Rates of lawbreaking among various groups, patterns of police deployment and the number of young people in an officer’s district are all factors that may affect the the racial makeup of the people an officer arrests, according to the institute, a conservative organization based in New York that markets itself as “a leading voice of free-market ideas.”
Thies, who has worked for the department since 2013 and makes an annual salary of around $83,000 a year, was taken off regular patrol duty and placed on administrative duty in October after the department completed a review of his stops. Des Moines police have declined to say why he was reassigned.
Des Moines contends the administrative review's findings can be kept secret because they're considered a personnel record and are part of an attorney's work product, which are exemptions in Iowa’s public records law. Exemptions allow but do not require governments to keep those categories of records secret.
Police spokesman Sgt. Paul Parizek said the public can be assured the department takes internal investigations seriously, including the one involving Thies.
“If anyone doubts, refer them to the investigations of Colin Boone, Tarry Pote, Joshua Judge and Tyson Teut,” Parizek said, referencing officers who resigned or were fired in the past five years after they were named in civil rights lawsuits or convicted of illegal activity or ethical misconduct.
“These were definitely not proud moments for the Des Moines Police Department," Parizek said. "However, they demonstrate that we take encroachments into our organization's integrity, reputation and service to our community most seriously.”
Des Moines police policy prohibits biased policing, he noted, and employees of the department are required to take implicit bias training.
CCI officials said they are aware of additionalcomplaints against Thies, though some details of those alleged incidents could not be verified by the Des Moines Register.
“We didn’t as an organization say, ‘Let’s go after this particular officer,’" said Sharon Zanders-Ackiss, a senior staff member of the group. “We’re looking at this particular officer because he has created a pattern and a concern that he seems to be a menace to the community.”
Details of the Saunders case: Vindicated by a judge
Saunders said a family emergency last year prompted him to pick up his 6-year-old niece from his sister’s house on the south side of Des Moines and take her to his brother’s home in the Martin Luther King Jr. neighborhood around 12:45 a.m. on July 8.
Thies, driving a police transport van with Officer Clint Dee, turned around and began to follow Saunders as he entered the MLK neighborhood. Thies said he followed because a turn taken by Saunders “didn’t feel right,” noting in an Oct. 25 deposition that he believed Saunders was trying to avoid the police vehicle.
“It’s hard to say” what didn’t feel right, Thies said. “I don’t know exactly. It’s kind of what you would call more, I don’t know, instinctive. Like you don’t always have a specific reason for why something felt right.”
Saunders soon parked his vehicle near the curb of his brother’s home, and Thies parked behind him. Thies testified that he approached Saunders' car for the sole purpose of investigating him for parking too close to a fire hydrant.
Thies did not mention the possible parking violation until after he questioned Saunders about whether he was home, shining a flashlight in the back seat and observing the unsealed bottle of liquor, court records and video obtained by the Register show.
Thies ultimately wrote Saunders a ticket for the open bottle of liquor. Tests conducted at the scene showed Saunders had not been drinking.
Saunders, who has no criminal convictions beyond traffic violations, contends Thies had no probable cause to stop him. He argued the bottle had been in the back seat of the vehicle for an extended period.
“If I was a white man driving, I wouldn’t be in this position right now,” Saunders told the Register in December.
The Register obtained police video of the incident because it became public as a result of the criminal case against Saunders.
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Magistrate Judge Dickinson ruled there was no credible evidence to support a finding that the officers were even aware Saunders was parked next to a fire hydrant until they approached his vehicle. That finding is significant because the parking issue was used by Thies to establish probable cause for the stop. As a result, Dickinson ruled evidence collected in the stop was not admissible in court and found Saunders not guilty.
Kami Chavis, a law professor and director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, reviewed video of the Saunders stop at the Register’s request.
“They were following him before he was even stopped” near the fire hydrant, Chavis said. “Unfortunately, stops like that are not uncommon, but it certainly screams pretextual.”
Pretextual stops occur when law enforcement makes a stop for a constitutionally valid reason — like a taillight malfunction — but the officer, in reality, has a different purpose for the stop, such as the apprehension of possible drunken drivers.
Saunders has argued his traffic stop violated his rights against unreasonable searches, as provided in the Iowa Constitution.
“This isn’t how people expect to be treated by police,” said Gina Messamer, an attorney who represents Saunders. “Courtney was treated as if he was suspicious, just by the way he turned. It’s a case that falls neatly into ‘driving while black.’”
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Details of the Collier case: Guilty of harassment, but was stop proper?
Ryan Collier, 40, admits he was not innocent of wrongdoing in a Jan. 13, 2018, incident when he ate marijuana before Thies could confiscate it.
Collier was not charged for drugs as a result of the stop, but he did plead guilty to a charge of harassing a police officer as a result of the more than one-hour exchange with Thies.
Collier contends the process and tactics Thies used to detain and question him are a community disservice and unconstitutional.
And he believes the judicial system is generally deaf to fairness complaints like his.
“I ain’t no saint by any means, but there shouldn’t be people like him targeting out people for whatever reasons they choose,” Collier said. “Especially when they know once they get you in a trap there’s nothing anyone will do about it. And that’s what he does: He gets people in a trap, and it’s not fair.”
Thies and Collier have a history: Thies previously arrested Collier in March 2016 after Thies discovered scales and multiple bags of marijuana in his vehicle, records show. Collier pleaded guilty to a third offense drug possession charge and was sentenced to two years of probation.
In 2018, Thies was responding to a call of narcotics activity in the 300 block of Southwest Fifth Street when he encountered Collier and a friend sitting in a car in a nearby parking lot. Thies said he saw loose-leaf marijuana on Collier’s lap and smelled marijuana when he approached the vehicle, video of the incident shows.
Collier questioned Thies’ motives throughout the stop and accused the officer of harassment, racism and profiling.
About seven minutes into the stop, Collier can be seen pulling his arms away as Thies attempts to handcuff him,according to police body-camera video of the incident first obtained by CCI. Thies told Collier he was being charged with resistance and warned Collier that if he continued, Thies would use a Taser stun gun on him, an action the officer did not take.
Soon after, Collier was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car, where he complained of pain from a previous shoulder injury. He asked if officers would move his handcuffs from behind him to in front. The request was denied.
The video shows Collier screaming about shoulder pain and asking for an ambulance. That request was also denied.
Collier was fined $65 after pleading guilty to the charge of harassment of a police officer related to the 2018 incident.
Thies said on the 2018 video that he witnessed Collier eating drugs, which Collier denied during the stop. Collier acknowledged in the December interview with the Register, however, that he did swallow marijuana as the officers approached the vehicle. He was not arrested on drug charges related to the 2018 stop.
The friend that was with Collier in the 2018 incident — another black man — was released without being charged with a crime. Collier contends neither man should have been questioned further after telling Thies they were not associated with the nearby building where the drug complaint originated. But he believes allegations about unfair traffic stops or questioning are discounted.
“The loopholes that you’ve got to go through to even be able to speak to someone about it on a real platform is a waste of time,” Collier said. “Everything about it is a show for money, not for us to be heard. That’s why people like him single out people like me and him, and nobody cares for real.”
Court has found pretextual stops lawful
Chavis, the Wake Forest law professor, notes that a stop can be ruled lawful even in cases where racial bias can be substantially proven. In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers’ subjective intentions play no role in general analyses of unreasonable search or seizures, she said.
The court found that pretextual stops can be deemed lawful if law enforcement officers provide an objective justification for the stop.
“It’s just a huge gaping loophole in our doctrine that allows racial profiling to take place,” Chavis said. “It tolerates racial profiling, but it also probably cultivates and encourages it as well.”
Critics say that by condoning pretextual stops, the court has sanctioned racial profiling and disproportionate enforcement.
Black people and other minorities are more likely to be stopped than white people, especially for minor violations like vehicle defects, numerous studies have shown. The New York Times in 2015, for example, published a series of articles that examined data from four states that best track the racial makeup of people stopped — Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina and Rhode Island — and found black people in some cities were more than five times more likely to be searched for contraband than white people.
The stops are a factor in the disproportionate rates of black inmates in prison, civil rights advocates have argued for decades. In Iowa, black people are imprisoned at 11 times the rates of white people, according to The Sentencing Project.
Three states — Connecticut, New Mexico and Washington — prohibit the use of pretextual stops under their state constitutions, according to research cited in court documents by Messamer, Saunders’ attorney. She believes the stops are inconsistent with the Iowa Constitution’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. Iowa civil rights advocates have called for banning such stops here.
“Pretextual traffic stops have driven system-wide disparities on the basis of race,” said Rita Bettis, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa legal director. “They are inherently dishonest, and for people of color, we’ve seen too many times that they are dangerous.”
Parizek, the Des Moines police spokesman, said he understands the goal of groups like CCI who contend the race of anyone detained by police should be reported. But such a mandate would increase administrative work and could be inaccurate since race is not always obvious, and people can be hesitant or untruthful when asked to identify their race, he said.
A better idea is for Iowa to add race to driver’s licenses, Parizek said. Most states do not list race on licenses, including all states surrounding Iowa. North Carolina asks drivers to identify race, but the question is optional and fewer than 2% answer the question, a Raleigh News & Observer review last year found.
Jason Clayworth is an investigative reporter for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-699-7058.