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Iowa Supreme Court Upholds Police Use Of Pretext Traffic Stops

The Iowa Supreme Court upheld police officers’ use of pretext traffic stops in a 4-3 opinion issued Friday. The ruling allows police to continue using minor infractions to pull people over when they really have a different reason to make the stop.

The ACLU and NAACP joined the case as friends of the court and argued the Iowa Supreme Court should prevent police from using pretext in traffic stops because they say the practice is connected to racial profiling.

Justice Susan Christensen writes for the majority that the “subjective motivations” of an officer making a traffic stop are irrelevant as long as the driver violated a traffic law, even if it’s very minor and common.

The Iowa County Attorneys Association signed on as a friend of the court in support of the state. They said a ruling in favor of Brown would “cause unprecedented and crippling civil liability to law enforcement officers and their employers.”

In this case, Waterloo Police Officer Justin Brandt saw driver Scottize Brown make a questionable turn and saw a license plate bulb was out. He ran the plate number and saw the car’s owner was linked to gang activity. That’s when Brandt pulled Brown over—she wasn’t the owner—and saw an open can of beer.

Brown, who is black, claimed the officer’s use of pretext to make the traffic stop was unconstitutional, and requested that her operating while intoxicated conviction be overturned.

Chief Justice Mark Cady writes in his dissent that pretextual traffic stops are “offensive to the values of our constitution” and contribute to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said the decision is disheartening and will perpetuate racial disparities in policing. She said the “sheer volume of traffic regulations” gives police the ability to stop almost any driver.

“This gives officers too much discretion in deciding who to stop, and who to let go about their day,” Austen said. “That’s where problematic bias against people of color comes into play.”

The ACLU of Iowa is encouraging the legislature to try to make changes to how traffic stops are conducted. Anti-racial profiling proposals have had support from some Republicans and Democrats, but they haven’t passed.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter