U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Independent photojournalist sues following arrest, assault at Des Moines protest

Incident Details

Date of Incident
June 1, 2020
Des Moines, Iowa
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Des Moines Police Department
Detention Date
Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?


Was the journalist targeted?
October 11, 2023 - Update

Appeals court revives journalist’s unlawful seizure, excessive force claims

A federal court of appeals revived freelance photojournalist Mark “Ted” Nieters’ unlawful seizure and excessive force claims in his lawsuit against the City of Des Moines, Iowa, and two law enforcement officers on Oct. 11, 2023.

Nieters sued the city, Officer Brandon Holtan and Chief of Police Dana Wingert in December 2020 following his arrest and assault that June. According to his lawsuit, Nieters was documenting the police response to protests at the state Capitol building when Holtan tackled him to the ground and pepper-sprayed him.

The photojournalist was placed under arrest and held in police custody for 12 hours before being released on a charge of failure to disperse. Nieters had to appear multiple times in court before the charge against him was ultimately dropped on Aug. 13.

Nieters’ lawsuit was transferred to federal court in February 2021, and in July 2022 a district judge granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the federal claims, finding that Holtan had “arguable probable cause” to arrest Nieters. Attorneys representing the photojournalist immediately filed an appeal to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

More than a year later, the appellate court reversed the dismissal of Nieters’ unlawful seizure and excessive force claims, but upheld the judge’s ruling on his First Amendment retaliation claim.

“Even if we concluded Officer Holtan made a reasonable mistake about probable cause when he first tackled Nieters to the ground, Nieters immediately informed Officer Holtan that he was a journalist and he provided press credentials,” Circuit Judge L. Steven Grasz wrote. “Yet Officer Holtan still arrested Nieters because he did not want to be perceived as giving a journalist special treatment.”

The case has been remanded back to the district court for a ruling on the federal claims.

June 1, 2020

A photojournalist was tackled to the ground and arrested while documenting protests in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 1, 2020. Mark Nieters, who publishes under Ted Nieters, subsequently filed a lawsuit against the city, the chief of police and the officer involved in the incident.

The protest was one in a series of national demonstrations against police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As the protests continued nightly, Iowa’s Polk County Board of Supervisors implemented a 9 p.m. curfew on May 31 due to “the violent outbreak of civil unrest” in Des Moines.

According to Nieters’ lawsuit, protesters had gathered at the Iowa Capitol on June 1 for an event called “Together We Can Make a Change: A Call to Action.” The formal event ended at 8:15 p.m., but several hundred people marched to the Des Moines Police Department and some ultimately looped back to the Capitol. Police engaged the crowd at around 11:45 p.m., according to the lawsuit, issuing an order to disperse and throwing tear gas canisters and flashbangs toward the protesters. Nieters confirmed the details of the filing to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, and his attorney was not immediately available for comment.

Nieters had left the complex before officers began attempting to disperse the crowd, and was walking alone on Locust Street toward an Embassy Suites located across the street from City Hall. He stopped in one of the hotel’s driveways and began taking photos as officers ran past City Hall in his direction. One of the officers, identified as Brandon Holtan and named as a plaintiff in the suit, ran directly toward Nieters.

“As Defendant Holton approached, Mr. Nieters placed his hands in the air and stated that he was a journalist. Mr. Nieters perceived that Defendant Holton was going to run directly into him and so Mr. Nieters turned his back and tried to brace himself,” the lawsuit states.

Holtan then tackled Nieters to the ground and pepper-sprayed him in the eyes. Nieters confirmed to the Tracker that while this was happening he identified himself as a journalist and said that he had his National Press Photographers Association press card in his back pocket.

In addition to the press card — which Holtan located and examined — the lawsuit states that Nieters was carrying two cameras and wearing a bright blue helmet at the time of the incident.

“Despite observing confirmation that Mr. Nieters was working as a photographer, Defendant Holton proceeded to tightly zip-tie Mr. Nieters’ hands together behind his back and arrest him,” the lawsuit said.

In an email to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Nieters said that the Des Moines Police officers repeatedly acted recklessly and without regard for the law or common sense.

“I believe I was targeted for being recognizable and in front while covering protests,” Nieters said.

Nieters confirmed to the Tracker that he was held in police custody for 12 hours, during which time he wasn’t allowed to make any calls to arrange for bail or alert anyone to his whereabouts until after his initial court appearance at around 12:30 p.m. Afterward, he was charged with failure to disperse and released.

According to Nieters’ lawsuit, officers lied about the course of events in both the affidavit supporting the charges and in a report about the incident.

On the morning of June 2, Gov. Kim Reynolds held a news conference, where Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens answered a few questions about the protests. Bayens said law enforcement’s response to the protests had been defined by “restraint, restraint, restraint,” adding that law enforcement did not have “any desire to see anyone that is there in a peaceful capacity or as a member of the media to get caught up with that.”

According to the Register, Nieters had to appear multiple times in court before the charge against him was ultimately dropped on Aug. 13, with all of his court costs to be paid by the prosecutors.

Nieters told the Tracker he was relieved by the outcome, but was alarmed by the prosecutor’s continued pursuit of charges against a Des Moines Register reporter who was arrested while covering protests the day before his arrest.

“It was a relief but also bothersome because Andrea Sahouri was still being charged for her journalism and neither of us were doing anything wrong,” Nieters said.

Sahouri was ultimately acquitted of all charges.

Nieters filed his lawsuit against Officer Holtan, Chief of Police Dana Wingert and the City of Des Moines on Dec. 23, seeking compensation for his injuries and violations of his constitutional rights as well as injunctive relief.

City attorneys moved Nieters’ case from state to federal court in February 2021 and filed a motion for summary judgment in April 2022.

On July 19, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger ruled in favor of the Des Moines Police Department on the federal claims, finding that Holtan had “arguable probable cause” to arrest Nieters because of his proximity to the protesters not complying with orders to disperse.

“Even if Holtan was mistaken in believing Nieters heard the dispersal orders and was following an unlawful assembly, such a mistake was objectively reasonable given the information Holtan received about a 'large' group traveling on Locust Street,” Ebinger wrote.

She added that Nieters turning away from Holtan as he approached could reasonably have been interpreted as an attempt to flee. Ebinger declined to rule on Nieters’ state claims, however, saying they should be decided by Iowa courts.

Gina Messamer, the photojournalist’s attorney, appealed the decision to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on July 27. Messamer told the Register that she expects the state proceedings to remain on hold until the appeal process is completed.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].