• David A. Cmelik Law PLC

Pretextual stops: police can stop a motorist for a minor traffic stop to investigate a more serious

Bumper fog lights on classic 1950s car

Welcome to another fun filled episode of "Can the Police Really Do THAT?" The answer, with regard to so-called 'pretextual stops' is a resounding yes-- for now. But members of the Iowa Supreme Court are watching carefully whether law enforcement officers may be violating the Iowa Constitution by claiming they are merely policing minor equipment violations when, in fact, they would never bother if it weren't for other, but perhaps not substantiated, suspicions the target motorist is involved in something more serious.

Now, to be sure, officers deny quotas. But they will say that there are some statistical realities—namely that people drive drunk and they know it. And if they don’t catch them, then drunk drivers will just get away, so in their view, they are making the world safe for democracy by engaging in pretextual stops.

As the dissent in State v. Harrison, a 2014 Iowa Supreme Court case validating a pretextual stop for a license plate frame violation in an undercover tail of a suspected drug dealer, makes clear:

“In the meantime, the take-away point for Iowa citizens is that they better go out to the garage and check their license plate frames if they want to avoid being pulled over by law enforcement on the open road. For the thousands of Iowans who have a frame that promotes a sports team, or an auto dealer, or have a nice (or not so nice) slogan, beware! If the license plate frame happens to obscure the county name on the plate, the State will take the position that police may stop the vehicle anywhere and at any time, whether one is dropping the kids off at school, returning home from the football game, or on the way to work, without any further sign of criminal wrongdoing. The State will likely take the position that the decision to stop a vehicle will rest in the unreviewable discretion of the police regardless of pretext. Sounds a bit like a general warrant, doesn't it? See State v. Ochoa, 792 N.W.2d 260, 269-73 (Iowa 2010) (discussing the desire of the framers of the Fourth Amendment to reject the general warrants authorized by the British Crown).”

State v. Harrison, 846 N.W.2d 362, 372-73 (Iowa 2014)(J. Appel, dissenting).

Stay tuned.

If you or a loved one has been arrested during a pretextual stop in Iowa, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC at 319-389-1889.