Iowa high court allows traffic stops called discrimination

June 28, 2019 GMT

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that police can continue to charge drivers with crimes they weren’t initially stopped for, a practice civil rights groups say is racial discrimination.

The court was considering the case of Scottize Danyelle Brown of Waterloo, a black woman, who was convicted of drunken driving and driving with a suspended license. Her car was stopped in October 2015 for having a deficient license plate light and going through an intersection as a light turned red.

Brown and a group of civil rights organizations say unrelated charges that arise from such stops lack proper pretext and violate an individual’s civil rights.


By a 4-3 margine, the court rejected her arguments that the Iowa Constitution requires judges to ask officers their subjective intentions for making a stop and to suppress evidence if the judge finds that those intentions failed to meet requirement of the Iowa Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The court rejected arguments from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens. The groups filed a brief with the court calling the stops “unlawful arbitrary, insulting, degrading, and violative of personal liberty.” They claimed such stops “perpetuate the profound problem of racial disparities in the criminal justice system and society.”

The Iowa County Attorneys Association, a group representing county prosecutors, countered in its own court filing that making officers defend their reasons for traffic stops as Brown suggested would “cause unprecedented and crippling civil liability to law enforcement officers and their employers.”

The opinion supported by the court’s new conservative majority was written by Justice Susan Christensen, a recent appointee of Gov. Kim Reynolds. It upheld Brown’s convictions concluding that “it is reasonable to stop a motorist based on reasonable suspicion that the motorist violated the law.”

Christensen wrote that Brown’s case represents a relatively common scenario where a late-night traffic stop led to a determination that a driver was intoxicated resulting in a drunken driving conviction.

“Although it is our job to interpret the Iowa Constitution and not to set policy for the state of Iowa, we think most Iowans favor this policy outcome and would not want reduced enforcement of the drunk driving laws,” she wrote.


She said state laws provide drivers with other protections to curtail officer abuse of authority during traffic stops. In addition she said “the spread of technology such as body cams, dash cams, and cell phone videos taken by private citizens will enable our society to better monitor and reduce racial profiling in the future.”

Chief Justice Mark Cady disagreed with the majority.

“Police officers, like the rest of us, have implicit biases they might not recognize. Simply acting on these biases does not indicate an officer’s propensity to be untruthful,” he wrote in a dissenting opinion. “We should have more faith in our law enforcement and give them the opportunity to recognize their biases so that they can acknowledge and limit acting on them.”

Justice Brent Appel in a separate dissent called the majority decision “bad law” that “fails to recognize or deal with the problems of implicit bias, fails to recognize the reality of racial profiling, fails to recognize the shortcomings of alternative remedies, and fails to recognize the constitutional harms caused by generalized seizures on the open road.”

Justice David Wiggins agreed with Cady and Appel.

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen called the decision incredibly disheartening.

“Today’s decision is a missed opportunity, and one that will only perpetuate racial disparities in policing in our state,” she said.

It’s now up to lawmakers, individual police chiefs, city councils, county sheriffs and county boards of supervisors “to chart a better course in their communities to strengthen law enforcement effectiveness and credibility in the communities they serve.”


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