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High Court: Iowa DOT officers cannot make "citizen's arrest"

The Iowa Supreme Court in State v. Jeremy Werner has held that Iowa DOT vehicle enforcement officers could not, before a recent law change, stop and arrest drivers without a license incident to a speeding violation. The court rejected the State’s last ditch argument that, even if such DOT vehicle enforcement officers had no statutory authority to make an arrest for a suspended license, that they could conduct such traffic stops under a theory of “citizen’s arrest.”

After stopping the Werner defendant for speeding 72 mph in a 55 mph construction zone, a DOT vehicle enforcement officer found that the driver was revoked. He arrested the driver for driving while revoked, a serious misdemeanor.

The Werner defendant moved to suppress all evidence collected after his traffic stop, including the officer’s conclusion that he was the driver and that he did not have a license. If granted, such a motion could spell the end of the prosecution. The district court denied the motion, finding that the DOT vehicle enforcement officer was a certified law enforcement officer and further that the arrest could have been a “citizen’s arrest” even if he did not.

After a trial on the minutes of testimony, the Werner defendant appealed. Writing for the Court, Justice Mansfield held that the DOT vehicle enforcement officers had no authority to conduct traffic stops before a 2016 amendment to the statute. The State attempted to argue that the 1976 criminal code revamped all statutes, even those it did not amend.

The Court rejected that argument holding that the statute governing the conduct of DOT officers was not amended. Moreover, it recalled a 1948 decision directly on point stating that only police officers could conduct traffic stops and make arrests. It agreed with the Werner defendant that the State’s interpretation of the law “would mean that probation officers, parole officers, special security officers of regents institutions, conservation officers, and certain employees of aviation authorities could all set up shop along the interstate highways and ticket speeding vehicles.”

With no other viable arguments, the State relied on Gomer Pyle’s classic argument that he was ticketing Deputy Barney Fife for an illegal U-turn: citizen’s arrest.

The Court responded:

“The State notes that Officer Glade took Werner to the county jail, which meant that he would have received an initial appearance before a magistrate. See id. § 804.24 (requiring a private person who has arrested another to take the arrested person before a magistrate or to deliver the arrested person to a peace officer who may take the arrested person before a magistrate accompanied by the private person). Two problems exist with this argument. First, Officer Glade made the stop as part of his official duties, not as a “private person.” See id. § 804.9. He detected the violation using LIDAR equipment and relied upon his official status to pull over Werner. Second, there is no indication that Officer Glade himself went with Werner before a magistrate, as is required for a citizen’s arrest.”

The State then went to old standby “community caretaking” and struck out again. Relying on its recent decision in Coffman, the Court held that the officer wasn’t engaged in community caretaking but using laser radar device to catch speeders in a construction zone. Under Coffman, someone relying on a Constitutional exception to the warrant requirement must have a bona fide interest in keeping motorists safe not an investigative purpose. It further distinguished law enforcement officers’ authority on state statute from the Constitutional means to conduct warrantless seizures.

The Court thus vacated the Werner defendant’s conviction and sentence and reversed the denial of his motion to suppress.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Werner case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for OWI (DUI) or other criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC for a free initial consultation today. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending information to a lawyer over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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