Lawsuit over ‘authorized’ break-in at county courthouse moves to federal court

By: - June 23, 2023 4:23 pm

The Dallas County Courthouse in Adel, Iowa. (Photo via Google Earth)

A long-simmering lawsuit over the 2019 arrest of two men who broke into the Dallas County Courthouse to test building security has taken a new twist with the case being moved to federal court.

Gary DeMercurio and Justin Wynn were arrested and charged with burglary and possession of burglary tools shortly after they entered the Dallas County Courthouse in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2019. At the time, the two men were employed by the Colorado-based cybersecurity company Coalfire Labs, which was under contract with the Iowa Judicial Branch to analyze the security of the state’s court system.

Their arrest sparked controversy and complaints from state lawmakers that the judicial branch had hired Coalfire to commit crimes, placing law enforcement officers and others at risk. Mark Cady, then the Iowa Supreme Court’s chief justice, apologized to lawmakers for the incident, saying it had diminished “public trust and confidence in the court system.”

At the time, judicial branch officials said they had not intended to authorize Coalfire to physically break into buildings or enter facilities outside normal business hours.

But in their subsequent lawsuit against Dallas County and Sheriff Chad Leonard, Wynn and DeMercurio asserted that their contract specifically called for “physical attacks” on buildings, including lockpicking and physical “penetration” of the premises. Coalfire’s contract, they allege, called for them to test security at the Iowa Judicial Building, Dallas County Courthouse, Polk County Courthouse, the Des Moines Juvenile Justice Center and other buildings.

The two say that after they successfully breached security at the Iowa Judicial Building, they left a business card behind as planned, and were called the next morning by a judicial branch worker who congratulated them for having successfully entered the building undetected.

Within a few days of that incident, on Sept. 11, 2019, the two men went to the Dallas County Courthouse shortly after midnight and found one of the doors to the building unlocked. The two men allege they locked that door and then began the process of trying to break in undetected.

They allege that while in the building, they intentionally tripped an alarm. County deputies arrived on the scene and Wynn and DeMercurio presented them with what was euphemistically called a “get-out-of-jail-free letter” from the state court administrator explaining the work they were hired to conduct should they face any questioning by law enforcement.

According to the lawsuit, the deputies were satisfied with the letter and told Wynn and DeMercurio they could leave. Before they could, the two men allege, Sheriff Leonard arrived and ordered his deputies to arrest the two.

Wynn and DeMercurio were charged with burglary and possession of burglary tools, their property was seized, and they were jailed for roughly 20 hours before being released. The charges were later reduced to trespassing and then dropped altogether.

In July 2021, Wynn and DeMercurio sued the county and the sheriff in Dallas County District Court, alleging false arrest, abuse of process, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.

In May 2022, the case was moved from Dallas County to Polk County, and this week the case was moved to U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. The switch to federal court is based on a federal statute that allows individuals to sue, for civil rights violations, government employees whose actions are controlled by state law.

Before the case was moved to federal court, it was expected to go to trial in May 2024.

Over the past three years, Dallas County has argued in state court that the agreement between Coalfire and the Iowa Judicial Branch was made “without any input or knowledge of Dallas County, its sheriff, or any of its agents. In fact, the agreement specified local law enforcement or security personnel were not to be notified in advance of the testing to be performed.”

The county has also argued that the state court administrator had no “authority to grant permission to enter a county owned courthouse,” and because of that there is “no set of facts showing any unlawfulness” in the arrest of Wynn and DeMercurio.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.