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Iowa Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Pretextual Traffic Stop Case

police car
Tony Webster
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Wikimedia Commons
Civil rights groups say "pretextual" traffic stops drive racial profiling and criminal justice disparities in Iowa.

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case that could determine the fate of pretextual traffic stops in the state.

These are stops made under the pretext of minor traffic violations when the law enforcement officer really has a different, sometimes discriminatory, reason for stopping a driver. Civil rights organizations including the ACLU of Iowa and the NAACP are calling on the Iowa Supreme Court to declare these stops unconstitutional, saying they drive racial profiling and criminal justice disparities in Iowa.

The case argued Tuesday centers around Scottize Danyelle Brown, a woman who is appealing an operating while intoxicated (OWI) conviction from a 2015 incident.

According to court briefs, a police officer in Waterloo noticed Brown’s driving when she turned right on a yellow light, passing another car. One of two license plate lamps on the back of her car was not working. The police officer ran a license plate check and saw the car’s owner, not Brown, had a connection to gang activity.

The officer pulled Brown over, saw an open beer can in the cup holder, and conducted sobriety tests. This evidence led to her OWI conviction.

Brown argued the stop was pretextual and asked the court to throw out her conviction and find that all such stops violate the Iowa Constitution because they amount to unreasonable seizures. 

Theresa Wilson, Brown’s attorney, said a ruling in her favor may or may not solve the problem of racial profiling.

“But the one thing it will definitely do is give members of our minority communities more confidence in a justice system that represents them and keeps their interests in mind when it comes to their civil rights and their rights to privacy and personal security,” Wilson said.

Assistant Attorney General Kelli Huser argued for the state that banning pretextual traffic stops would cause problems for police officers and for the courts, which would have to try to figure out the intent behind the officers’ actions.

“What we’re talking about is the initial decision to stop a motorist. When does law enforcement have the authority to stop that motorist, versus the individual’s liberty interest. And what this court has said is, if you see a traffic violation, that is probable cause to stop the vehicle,” Huser said.

Huser also argued that these are equal protection issues, rather than unreasonable search and seizure issues.

The Iowa County Attorneys Association submitted a brief in support of the state's position. 

Chief Justice Mark Cady said there’s an “enormous” racial disparity in the criminal justice system, and there’s a big cost to society as a whole when African-Americans can’t trust the criminal justice system.

“Isn’t that a cost that we have to put into this balance in determining whether it’s reasonable to pull someone over for a minor traffic violation, when there’s other reasons underneath it all that are creating this enormous cost to society and the division in society?” Cady asked.

A ruling in this case could take months.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter