Black Lives Matter Protester Sues DMPD Over Her Arrest Last May [Updated]

Former Albia resident Miranda Nicolai is alleging that police wrongfully arrested her using excessive force, violating her civil rights. It's the latest of several lawsuits filed against the DMPD in connection to last summer's protests.

Scenes from the Black Lives Matter march along Court Avenue on May 30 last year. Photos: Aaron Calvin/Iowa Informer

Update, 1/4: Nicolai and Lynch held a brief press conference on the steps of Polk County Courthouse today after signing and preparing to submit their lawsuit.

“We’re excited to hopefully set a precedent for a lot of the other protesters whose civil rights have been violated,” Lynch said.

“It’s been a really interesting road to recovery,” Nicolai said, “and there’s a lot more to come. I’m just doing this because I’m looking to seek some justice for what happened and hold the people who were actively responsible for this accountable.”

Miranda Nicolai signing the lawsuit against the Des Moines police alongside her lawyer Benjamin Lynch, right, in front of the Polk County Courthouse. Photo: Aaron Calvin/Iowa Informer

Lynch said that while the lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount in damages, monetary compensation is the desired outcome. He predicted the process would take several years, adding he was hopeful the discovery he and his client have so far been denied would be granted and spur change in the way the Des Moines police handle protests. Nicolai is his only client from the arrests made on the night of May 30 and the early morning of May 31, Lynch said, but other civil rights cases are in the works.

A resident of Albia at the time of her arrest who has since relocated to Des Moines, Nicolai said she attended the protest in solidarity with the movement and to express her desire to fight for systemic change in policing. “Change starts here [in Des Moines],” she said. “When I saw things happening in Des Moines, I knew I had to come be a part of it. It’s actually part of the reason I ended moving to Des Moines. I saw this change happening and I want to help drive it.”

During the press conference, Nicolai clarified a detail from the lawsuit mentioned in our original story about an alleged conversation between two officers, one of whom explained that the decision to charge her with a felony was an intimidation tactic to dissuade her and others from protesting. The conversation, she said, was related to her by a friend who was also arrested. Nicolai added that she was held for two days because she was placed in a pre-trial release program where the state paid her bail and would not allow others to post bail for her, instead holding her until the initial trial hearing.

Nicolai also said the injuries she sustained as a result of her violent arrest have forced her to continue to deal with lingering pain in her hip and shoulder.

Original post: A lawsuit filed Monday against Des Moines police officers Luke Hastie and Chad Nicolino, Police Chief Dana Wingert, and the city of Des Moines alleges wrongful arrest, excessive force, and multiple civil rights violations.

Des Moines civil rights attorney Benjamin Lynch filed the lawsuit at noon at the Polk County Courthouse on behalf of Miranda Nicolai, a 24-year-old resident of Albia at the time of her arrest during a Des Moines Black Lives Matter protest last May.

The lawsuit details how Nicolai suffered distress from tear gas canisters deployed by police at the Iowa Capitol building on May 30 — the second night of the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer — and arrested in the early morning in the downtown Court Avenue area. When police were called in response to a small group of people attempting to break into the Hy-Vee grocery store in that area, they proceeded to arrest dozens of people including Nicolai.

Perpetrators of the Hy-Vee break-in fled when police arrived and Nicolai claims she was purposefully trapped in an alley along with ten others as she was attempting to leave the scene. Police then gave contradictory orders to both “disperse” and “stop,” according to the lawsuit, before an unidentified police officer “sprayed mace and violently tackled” Nicolai despite the fact that she offered no resistance to the arrest and repeatedly said, “Please don’t shoot” and “I am not resisting.”

After being held with a knee to the back of her neck, Nicolai’s hands were bound together with a zip-tie that was allegedly tight enough to cause lacerations and bruising. She was then handcuffed and left in a paddy wagon until she was finally processed at Polk County jail at 8 a.m., five hours after her arrest. The lawsuit claims that officers failed to file an arrest incident report detailing the use of excessive force in violation of department policy.

Once she was processed at the jail, Nicolai was initially charged with a felony for second-degree mischief and three misdemeanors. According to the lawsuit, a cop who was overheard questioning the decision to bring felony charges against Nicolai and others was told by another officer that the charges were necessary “to keep them in jail so they couldn’t keep protesting.” The lawsuit claims Nicolai was afraid to attend protests after this incident due to her experience. She spent two days in jail before her release.

The Polk County attorney’s office, overseen by Democrat John Sarcone, declined to pursue the felony mischief charge, but did initially uphold the three misdemeanor charges of participating in a riot, unlawful assembly, and failure to disperse. Lynch proceeded to request discovery materials on behalf of his client, including video and other evidence related to Nicolai’s arrest. Although the request was approved by the presiding judge, the Sarcone refused and eventually dropped the charges, claiming that, in their review of the evidence, Des Moines police were “unable to sufficiently document this defendant’s actions for charges to go forward at this time.” The state has continued to refuse to participate in the discovery process despite Lynch’s request, but a motion to compel it is still under consideration.

Nicolai’s lawsuit accuses Hastie and Nicolino, along with unnamed police officers, of illegal seizure, excessive force, libel, assault, assault and battery, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil rights violations. It accuses Wingert and the city of fostering deliberately indifferent policies, practices, customs, training, and supervision that resulted in civil rights violations. Nicolai is seeking damages of an amount yet to be determined and compensation for what she believes were the violation of her constitutional rights and arrest that caused mental anguish and humiliation.

Hastie is a relatively young officer who received the department’s Lifesaving Award in 2018 when he assisted in the resuscitation of a criminal witness after he collapsed during an investigation. As a senior at Buena Vista University in 2016, Hastie penned an ideological defense of law enforcement, arguing that media reports of police activity were “skewed and manipulated” and that police were really “protecting this country from those who threaten to tear it apart.” Nicolino is a senior member of the department who was briefly placed on paid administrative leave briefly after firing upon and possibly wounding a man driving through a crime scene in 2014.

More than 40 others who believe they were wrongfully beaten, tear-gassed, and detained on the same night of Nicolai’s arrest banded together for a class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit — which was filed on December 29 and names 16 officers as well as 60 unnamed officers, Wingert, and the city — was filed by Des Moines attorney Gina Messamer, who has also filed individual lawsuits on behalf of protester Denver Foote, who was violently arrested by police around the same time as Nicolai, and freelance photographer Mark “Ted” Nieters, who was arrested on June 1 at the Capitol building. In a press release, Lynch said Nicolai was opting not to participate in Messamer’s class-action lawsuit in order to pursue her own claims.