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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Cmelik Law PLC

Iowa court: parking tix okay to start DUI investigation, 2 justices raise racial bias concerns

Justice Appel Warren racial bias quote and excerpt
Iowa Supreme Court Justices Appel and Mansfield raised the alarm about racial bias in the Warren case on Friday, March 5, 2021. Justice Appel's dissent is excerpted above. The Warren case is an OWI and Driving While Revoked criminal case that began when an officer seized a motorist simply because of a parking citation.

The Iowa Supreme Court yesterday decided an important drunk driving case, holding that a parking ticket is no different than a traffic citation under the Fourth Amendment and that both can serve as the basis for a criminal drunk driving investigation in Iowa. The majority decision does not mention race at all. But both of the dissents do mention racial bias as a possible, if not likely, reason for law enforcement interaction.

In State v. Warren, a motorist parked her car in a driveway behind another car. Because she parked behind someone else, her car was sticking out in the street. A police officer watched this happen and told the driver she could not park there. He asked her for her license, registration, and proof of insurance and when she opened the door, he smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the interior of the vehicle.

The officer told the driver that it “smelled like weed” and she laughed and told him that she agreed. He advised her that she could not smoke weed and drive, that her license was revoked, and that he wanted her to perform some field sobriety tests. The motorist’s good humor transformed to indignation. She refused testing and directed the officer to simply take her to jail. At the stationhouse, the defendant refused scientific testing explaining that she had methadone in her system and she does smoke weed.

At trial, the defendant waived jury which means that only the judge decided the case after presentation of the case. The State did not choose which drunk driving theory under which it wished to proceed: (1) “under the influence,” based on affect and demeanor; or (2) the presence of any controlled substance. It presented both in the alternative without picking a lane.

The defendant argued on appeal that because the State presented two different theories of prosecution it is impossible to know whether the trial court properly found the necessary elements to either theory—pointing to binding precedents that require juries to find the required elements of a single, specific theory of prosecution to avoid confusion.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Susan Larson Christensen noted that this was not a jury trial, however, where the jury’s verdict could be confused or indiscernible. It was a bench trial by a judge and it noted the high bar for overturning the decisions of a judge. It rejected the argument that there was not enough evidence in the case as well as the theory that the Fourth Amendment and Article I § 8 of the Iowa Constitution prohibited the seizure for a non-moving violations just like moving violations. It noted that parking in the traveled portion of the roadway is a violation of the law like any other under the law and Iowa Code § 321.258.

It distinguished the Ohio and Minnesota cases cited by the defendant and compared the facts of this case to several other jurisdictions, including federal courts, that allow a Fourth Amendment seizure based on civil infractions like parking citations. The decision did not mention race.

The dissents are notable because both Justices Mansfield and Appel indicated racial bias may have been at work in this case.

Justice Mansfield appeared to argue that it is worse for the officer in this case not to have an unstated investigative reason for pursuing an investigation based only on a parking ticket—implying that the officer apparently just wanted to roust the defendant for a parking violation and find a crime later. Justice Mansfield contrasted the parking ticket case with other “pretextual stop” cases where officers were legitimately investigating sophisticated criminals who hid their tracks but foolishly committed a traffic violation to allow the officers inroads to further their investigation. There was no such legitimate criminal investigation in this case, he wrote, however.

“I am beginning to wonder if law school academics have it backwards. Maybe the problem is not the pretextual stop; it’s the stop without another stated motive,” wrote Justice Mansfield, adding “when police take an action [that] they would not normally take in response to something minor, and they don’t argue it was pretextual, we ought to be more concerned.”

Justice Mansfield suggested the reason for that action was racial bias:

“Implicit bias and discriminatory assumptions are not issues that should be swept away, disregarded, or merely brushed to the side. They deserve to be tackled head-on,” Justice Mansfield continued.

Justice Mansfield proposed shifting the burden to officers to prove “a legitimate, substantial nondiscriminatory basis for the officer’s actions unrelated to the technical violation.” Pretext for a legitimate, criminal investigation where the technical violation is the pretext would be fine, according to Justice Mansfield, but having no legitimate purpose other than the technical violation as here would not be fine.

Justice Appel also filed a dissent.

“Indeed, when it comes to traffic stops, there is ample evidence that the stops are often pretextual and that race plays a role. Over twenty years ago, David Harris, in influential scholarship, wrote that rules have been relaxed as part of the war on drugs and that African-American and Hispanics pay the largest price.”

In this case, however, the dissents did not carry the day. The Court affirmed, or, approved, the convictions.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no part in the Warren decision

If you or a loved one have been arrested for OWI (DUI) or other Iowa criminal offense, contact us for a free initial consultation.


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