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Iowa high court: fake, but legal, reasons still okay to justify traffic stops

June 28, 2019--The Iowa Supreme Court issued its opinion in State v. Scottize Danyelle Brown, in which it appeared to return to a federalized interpretation of Iowa search and seizure law. The Court examined whether a motorist who breaks a traffic law may be stopped if the officer was motivated by “investigative” reasons other than the outwardly stated traffic violation.

In Brown, a police officer at a stoplight noticed a car had an improperly functioning license plate light. The officer “ran” the vehicle information through a police database and discovered that the registered owner—who turned out not to be the driver— was allegedly affiliated with a gang. The officer conducted a traffic stop only because of the gang affiliation but justified the stop with the license plate light “pretextual,” or, fake reason. The stop led the officer to notice an open beer container in the center console. Ultimately, the officer charged the driver with Operating While Intoxicated. The driver moved to suppress stated that the officer’s reasons for the stop were not the traffic violations themselves.

The District Court denied the motion to suppress and, at a trial on the minutes of testimony, an abbreviated trial without witnesses intended to preserve evidentiary challenges for appeal, the court found the Defendant guilty.

Justice Christensen, writing for the majority, appeared to indicate the Court is shifting back to search and seizure law interpretation in line with the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution after over a decade of finding rights more protective of Iowans in the state constitution.

Justice Christensen acknowledged that the Iowa Supreme Court jealously guards its right to provide more protection in Article I § 8 of the Iowa Constitution than does the Fourth Amendment but, "we are not writing on a blank slate,” she wrote. Lawyers for Brown argued the Government should be required to disprove a subjective reason for the stop-- here the registered owner's purported gang affiliation-- wasn't the actual reason.

The Court found that test “unworkable” citing to “certainty and uniformity” as reasons not to force prosecutors and police to justify their real reasons for the stop. It also rejected disparate enforcement, e.g., “racial profiling,” noting that the Court cannot cure all ills in society.

Quoting an Alaska Law Review article, the Court noted, “[t]he harsh reality is that we lack the ability to control all the variables leading to disparate enforcement.”

The Court also wrote that there are ways to suss out bad police actors. It noted an individualized approach to examining an officer’s subjective intent may lead a district court to question the stated reason for the stop, too.

“If the district court doubts the officer’s credibility and finds the motorist did not commit a traffic violation, then the stop is unconstitutional,” wrote Justice Christensen.

The Court went on to suggest that the Equal Protection Clause, not search and seizure law, was the appropriate mechanism to attack racial discrimination.

In its final rejection of a burden shifting rule, the Court noted that forcing police to disprove their ulterior motives would “hinder law enforcement officers” and “undermine public confidence in the legal system.”

It then cited to a majority of jurisdictions that authorize traffic stops for any objective traffic violation regardless of the officer’s true intent for the stop.

Justice McDonald, concurring specially, wrote that a recent judicial trend wherein the Iowa Constitution became “a one-way ratchet to provide only greater rights and remedies than a parallel provision of the United States Constitution” was “not sound.” Justice McDonald wrote that the Court is free to interpret the state constitution to provide less protection that the federal constitution, and “may do so by looking at the text of the document through the prism of our precedent, tradition and custom.”

Justice Cady and Appel separately dissented. Justice Cady argued that “[o]ur law must, instead, prohibit pretextual stops motivated by race or any other classification, even when probable cause for a traffic violation exists.”

Justice Cady continued by stating that the federal doctrine allowing pretextual stops was wrong because “it gives police officers too much authority, which has led to the misuse of that authority and has allowed police officers to engage in fishing expeditions based on offensive motivations.”

Justice Appel’s dissent repeated the phrase “the unjustified and arbitrary exercise of government power,” more than once, stating that it was the chief evil against which Article I § 8 was designed to attack. He recounted the diminution of search and seizure protections at the federal level and the assent of the Iowa Constitution’s protections of Iowans to a greater extent than the Fourth Amendment provided. He called the majority’s textual comparison and analysis of the Iowa Constitution’s “seizure and search” language a “conclusory bromide.”

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Brown decision.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for Operating While Intoxicated or other Iowa criminal offense, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC for a free initial consultation today. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending unsolicited information to a lawyer over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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