Iowa Supreme Court hears arguments in pretextual traffic case

Posted at 2:07 PM, Sep 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-19 16:07:02-04

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    DES MOINES, IA (KPTM) — The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments in a case Tuesday that civil rights groups argue could reduce racial profiling in the state.

Pretextual stops are at the center of the case — and whether or not they are “reasonable” under the state’s constitutional search and seizure protections.

The case is an appeal from Scottize Brown, who was pulled over in Waterloo in 2015 for driving through a yellow light and burnt out license plate lights, according to court documents. The police officer in the case ran the license plate and found that the owner of the vehicle, not Brown, had possible connections to gang activity, prior to pulling her over. She was then arrested for an OWI and driving with a suspended license, convictions she wants the court to toss out because she argues the stop was unlawful and pretextual.

These stops are traffic stops in which an officer claims one reason for pulling someone over, like a tail light being burnt out, but uses that as a “pretext” for another reason that would be otherwise unlawful like finding the driver’s race, location, sex, car or record “suspicious,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which filed an amicus brief alongside theIowa-Nebraska Conference of the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, and 1000 Kids for Iowa to show support for the case.

The defense hopes that the state’s highest court will find that these pretextual stops unconstitutional because they breach personal security protections. Theresa Wilson, attorney for Brown in the case, acknowledged a ruling in her favor might not end racial profiling , but it would bridge the gap in minority communities that might feel abandoned by the justice system.

“One thing it will definitely do is give members of our minority communities more confidence in a justice system that represents them and keeps their interests in mind when it comes to their civil rights and their rights to privacy and personal security,” Wilson said.

The state argues have officers right to pull someone over for a traffic violation, so it was reasonable to pull Brown over. Assistant Attorney General Kelli Huser, who argued for the state, also said that running a license plate in certain instances can be seen as “good police work.” She argued there is a balance between both interests in the case.

“When does law enforcement have the authority to stop that motorist, versus the individual’s liberty interest. And what this court has said is if you see a traffic violation, that is probable cause to stop the vehicle,” Huser said.

Chief Justice Mark Cady suggested this case might have greater implications in society, citing “enormous” racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“There seems to be a fear in African American communities about policing tactics. Isn’t that a cost we have to put into this balance when determining if it’s reasonable to pull someone over for a traffic violation?” Cady questioned.

The court has until June to issue an opinion on the case. A spokesman for the Judicial Branch said the average time frame for a ruling is about 90 days.

The Iowa County Attorneys Association submitted an amicus brief in support of the state.

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