|Speed Bump Ahead: Police and County Attorney Moved Too Fast to Prosecute Keith Meyer, While a Jury Trial Proved Common Sense Can Prevail|
|Commentary/Politics - Editorials|
|Written by Todd McGreevy|
|Thursday, 07 March 2013 08:40|
(Note: Links to PDF documents can be found within this article.)
Last week, justice was served in Scott County when a jury of 12 level-headed Iowans found Keith Meyer, Davenport’s former Ward 3 alderman, not guilty of an aggravated misdemeanor: “assault while displaying a weapon.” In November, Meyer was accused by his neighbor, John Fahs – with whom he has a well-documented history of trouble – and arrested by Davenport police. If convicted, Meyer could have been sentenced for up to two years in prison.
Meyer chose to represent himself in this matter, which necessarily consumed his time and energy for four months. It is no small matter to represent yourself in the administrative code system, because the rules are stacked against regular folks without attorneys. But Meyer is not your typical go-along-to-get-along citizen, and he is clearly smarter than your average bear. In addition, he is nearly totally deaf. Yet he prevailed, albeit largely because the prosecutor’s case was so weak.
The case against Meyer should never have been brought. There was no injured party. It was bogus from the jump. Back when courts made more sense, any charge that could potentially result in being jailed for more than 30 days required a grand-jury indictment. Today, however, under administrative procedural rules, county attorneys have effectively usurped the people’s authority by removing grand juries from the process.
No longer does a grand jury determine if allegations merit criminal prosecution and due process for the accused. Instead, county prosecutors make that determination based on precious little evidence showing harm to persons or property. The system is made deliberately complex so that most accused plead out to minimize time and cost.
Such a hijacked process favors the state’s objective within the statutory system: maximize revenues. In Scott County alone, charges are brought nearly 5,000 times per year by the Scott County attorney, bypassing grand-jury oversight altogether and basing costly prosecutions solely on a boilerplate affidavit that states, “Facts known to me or told to me by other reliable persons form the basis for my belief that the defendant committed these crimes” – giving carte-blanche authority to prosecute alleged crimes, regardless of the veracity or tangibility of evidence.
In other words, if the Scott County grand jury had had a chance to do its job and review the case Fahs and the police wanted to bring against Meyer, it may very well have been rejected, saving everyone (including taxpayers) time and money – and avoiding the damage to one’s reputation that often comes with such public allegations.
The state did offer plea bargains in writing prior to the trial, and verbally during a pre-trial motion hearing in the judge’s chambers. The written offer, which Meyer declined, stipulated that Meyer plead guilty, pay a $1,000 fine plus court costs, and agree to a suspended sentence of 240 days that included a year’s probation. The verbal offers, according to Meyer, included a guilty plea and the fine reduced to $625 payable by community service, with the charge removed from his record after 12 months’ probation.
Meyer declined these plea agreements for a single, principled reason: He was not guilty. The folly of the trial proceedings was the court’s insistence that the accused not be allowed to introduce any evidence that showed the ongoing feud between Fahs and himself. The county attorney’s strategy was to isolate this one incident and prosecute it as such, and the court accommodated that strategy.
None of the documentation describing in-depth the unresolved serious problems that have prevailed between Meyer and Fahs over the years was considered relevant to Keith’s defense, including dozens of e-mails between Keith, the Davenport Police Department, the Scott County attorney’s office, and Davenport aldermen.
The central and well-documented problem between these two neighbors was Meyer putting in a speed bump to slow traffic down along the long, steep, and winding driveway that merits a slower speed for safety purposes. Fahs, who has the right to use the driveway, apparently prefers the driveway to be speed-bump-free. Meyer originally put in a speed bump in August 2012, which Fahs allegedly destroyed. This property destruction was reported to the police on numerous occasions because it resulted in several encounters between Meyer and Fahs during which Meyer claimed he was physically assaulted and threatened by Fahs.
In an e-mail, a Scott County assistant attorney determined these incidents to be over an unadjudicated civil matter, not a criminal one, and no charges were filed against Fahs. Meyer reached out repeatedly to the authorities for help/remedy for what he alleged was assault and property damage by Fahs. The response from Davenport police: “As of this time, without the county attorney moving forward with any criminal charges, we can only monitor the situation and respond with more follow-up on new allegations.”
It is no surprise then that when Meyer reinstalled a speed bump on November 11, 2012, a heated argument ensued between them. Fahs went to his house to get his camera to document the speed bump. Meyer went to his house to retrieve his shotgun for protection against what he feared would be another physical assault by Fahs.
Fahs took the opportunity to photograph Meyer holding his shotgun by his side. No picture of the speed bump was taken. Fahs then returned to his house and called the police, accusing Meyer of pointing a gun at him, threatening his life. The 911 recording reveals Fahs laughing on several occasions during the call, indicating no presence of fear. This was important evidence for the jury in determining the veracity of Fahs’ testimony that he was afraid for his life. According to one juror who asked not to be named, “He was not a credible witness.”
Download Embed Embed this video on your site Audio of John Fahs’ 911 call
Meyer repeatedly told police that he did not point his weapon at Fahs. While Fahs did allege such an act on the 911 call, he failed to affirm such a detail when questioned by police at the scene. Regardless, Meyer was arrested and the meme that Meyer “pointed a gun” was proliferated by the police filings and subsequent media coverage.
Transcripts of audio recordings by the arresting officers conclusively demonstrate the myriad flaws in the arrest process, the most alarming of which is the decision by officers to arrest Meyer first, then provide proof of probable cause second. “We take Keith Meyer to jail, we’ve got to prove we’ve got probable cause that he did something other than standing in his driveway on his property with a shotgun. All we’ve got is the neighbor saying – I don’t even know if we’ve got – ” reads the transcript of one police audio recording. The officer who made this statement was not allowed to testify during the trial, despite being named as witness by the state.
Following Meyer’s arrest and this arresting officer’s subsequent statement, questioning of Fahs can best be described as fraught with leading questions designed to elicit a specific response that would provide justification for an arrest that had already occurred. Probable cause must first be established, determining whether an arrest is justified – not the other way around.
Furthermore, the police acted as judge and jury when they accepted Fahs’ version of events over Meyer’s. Unfortunately, Iowa Code 708.2(3) is ripe for abuse by an overzealous government that can indict without a grand jury. The arresting officer even admitted during Meyer’s cross examination that there was no evidence Meyer pointed a gun.
The problem with the pictures Fahs took was twofold: First, the time stamp on the photo was dated March 2011, and Fahs claimed he took it the day of incident, on November 11, 2012. Second, several pictures claiming to be taken that day were also admitted by the state as evidence, but inconsistencies were immediately apparent to the jury. In one photo, a scoop shovel is visible, but it’s missing in the others that were supposedly taken at the same time.
Despite these glaring inconsistencies, the photos were allowed as evidence with an explanation by the prosecutor that the camera was broken when the picture was taken, corrupting the time stamp, but that Meyer was dressed in the same coveralls and shirt as the day of the arrest, thereby authenticating the reliability of the photo(s) as evidence.
Based on the transcripts of the police officers at Meyer’s home, it is hard to imagine how any prosecutor could justify proceeding with such an overwhelming lack of evidence – let alone requisite probable cause other than an emerging antagonism by authorities toward rights protected by the Second Amendment – rights that police officers swear an oath to protect. This portion of the transcribed recording of the officers’ interaction with Meyer speaks volumes to the underlying bias that played out during Meyer’s arrest.
Unidentified male officer: “You don’t run around on your public property – your property pointing guns at people.”
Meyer: “I didn’t point my gun.”
Unidentified male officer: “Really? He [Fahs] has a picture of you holding it.”
Meyer: “He was threatening me.”
Unidentified male officer: “Where?”
Unidentified female officer: “Okay, then you call us and we deal with that. That doesn’t give you the right to be seen with a gun.”
The truly confounding aspect of this particular trial is the court’s attempts to disallow any of the contentious history between Meyer and Fahs as evidence for Meyer’s justification defense. Yet during testimonies for the prosecution, numerous references were made by Fahs of his version of past confrontations with Meyer, ostensibly justifying Fahs’ alleged fear of Meyer.
The double standards that this ordeal reveal are worth noting. Meyer was not allowed to bring his laptop into the courthouse during his trial, due to a ban – except for attorneys – on electronic devices. Meyer cannot rely on his efforts to document prior incidents with Fahs as his defense, but Fahs can testify to his account of prior events. The prosecution can stipulate which police they will call as a witness, but when Meyer does not subpeona those same witnesses, he is not allowed to call them to the stand. And when the government tells us to slow down for our own safety and the safety of others, it is fiercely enforced with high-tech equipment, guns, fees, revocation of driving privileges, and the courts. But when a private property owner attempts to enforce similar speeding/safety precautions, he is arrested.
The state really did not want to allow Meyer to bring into evidence any of the past efforts he made to seek protection against Fahs’ alleged assaults and property damage. The county prosecutor filed a motion in limine to disallow any of Meyer’s previous efforts, stating: “Even if relevant, evidence related to these issues would be confusing to a jury, misleading, cause great delay and waste considerable time.” The Davenport city attorney even tried to get in the game, attempting to quash Meyer’s subpoenas of the arresting police officers on a technicality and make himself an intervenor in the trial. Since the verdict, the city of Davenport has purportedly opened up an internal investigation into an evidence technician’s recorded statement that when he was previously called to Meyer’s house, he would knock softly because he knew Meyer couldn’t hear and then he would file a report that Meyer did not come to the door. How many false reports has this evidence technician filed in other cases?
Why would the county and the city work so hard to limit Meyer’s ability to tell his side of the story? More than likely, there’s much more to this story. A juror spoke to me about this trial but only anonymously because “I feel retribution is coming from the police department. If they can do what they did to Meyer, they can do it to everybody.” This juror added: “If the cops don’t know the law, how are we supposed to know the law?”
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