Ex-Iowa trooper facing federal charge over 2017 traffic stop
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A former Iowa State Patrol officer with a history of excessive force allegations has been indicted on a federal charge over a 2017 traffic stop in which dash-camera video captured him roughing up a motorcyclist.
A federal grand jury charged Robert James Smith last week with violating the motorcyclist’s civil rights by using unreasonable force during the Sept. 25, 2017, stop near West Liberty, a community of about 4,000 people roughly 15 miles (25 kilometers) southeast of Iowa City.
The indictment notes that the victim suffered “bodily injury” during the encounter, which means the charge could carry a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Smith is scheduled to make his initial appearance on Nov. 16 at the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids. He did not immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment, and court records don’t show whether he has an attorney.
Dash camera video shows Smith pulling over Bryce Yakish for speeding at a gas station off of Interstate 80. The routine stop escalated immediately when Smith ran from his car with his gun drawn and pointed at Yakish, who was then 20 years old.
Smith used his left hand to strike the face shield of Yakish’s helmet, knocking him backward onto his motorcycle and to the ground. Smith briefly put his knee on Yakish’s neck while handcuffing him. Yakish can be repeatedly heard in the video complaining of neck pain.
Smith falsely accused Yakish of trying to flee and charged him with eluding law enforcement, even though Yakish stopped immediately after Smith activated his patrol car’s lights and siren. That charge was dropped after a prosecutor reviewed the video and concluded it was baseless.
Yakish lost his license because of the arrest, his motorcycle was impounded and he spent the night in jail. A chiropractor later treated him for neck pain.
The Iowa State Patrol allowed Smith, a 30-year veteran of the force, to quietly retire in 2018 after conducting an internal investigation into the incident. Smith was later hired as a police officer in the small town of Durant, where he was accused of using excessive force against a woman during an arrest.
Smith’s use of force during the 2017 traffic stop only became public in 2019 after The Associated Press published video of the incident obtained from Cedar County Sheriff Warren Wethington.
The sheriff released the video after announcing he would no longer book any suspects arrested by Smith at his jail. He said he could no longer vouch for the credibility of Smith, whose wife serves on the Cedar County Board of Supervisors and has been a political rival of the sheriff. Smith soon resigned from Durant’s police force.
Wethington said the federal indictment comes after two prosecutors in Iowa — the Cedar County Attorney and the former Muscatine County Attorney — reviewed the stop and determined that state charges weren’t warranted.
“I think it’s really important that the taxpayers know that this was overlooked by two local county attorneys,” he said.
Marty Diaz, an attorney who represented Yakish in a civil lawsuit against Smith, said the case shows the importance of the public’s ability to access police video. He said his client knew he had been abused but “there was no way he was going to prove that” until the video’s release.
Diaz praised federal prosecutors for pursuing the case, saying incidents of violence by law enforcement officers had become too pervasive.
“It seems like every week we are seeing an event like this,” he said.
State Attorney General Tom Miller’s office represented Smith against Yakish’s lawsuit. Earlier this year, a state panel agreed to pay Yakish $225,000 from the state budget to settle the case.
In addition, the Iowa Department of Public Safety unsuccessfully resisted a subpoena from the federal grand jury that sought records related to Smith’s use-of-force and disciplinary history. One defense lawyer has alleged that Smith faced two dozen internal affairs investigations during his patrol career.
Smith’s son serves as a trooper in eastern Iowa.