Why the Iowa Supreme Court declined to outlaw ‘pretextual’ traffic stops under the Iowa Constitution

by Rox Laird | July 5, 2019

On June 28 the Iowa Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case that presented an opportunity to strike down as unconstitutional so-called pretextual traffic stops by law enforcement officers motivated by racial bias.

In the end, the deeply divided Court passed on the opportunity, and gave insight into the differing approaches to interpreting Iowa’s Constitution.

Scottizie Dannyelle Brown appealed her drunk-driving conviction in Black Hawk County District Court, arguing that the police officer’s decision to pull her car over was based on bias against African-Americans, and that any traffic law she might have violated was a mere pretext, or excuse, to justify the stop.

In its 4-3 decision in State v. Brown, “expectation that she will be able to continue down the road without interruption unless that violation is the officer’s motivation for the stop.”

Thethe Court held that the stop was legally justified based on Brown’s driving violation, and even if the officer’s decision to pull Brown over was based on race that would not be a basis for throwing out evidence gathered during the stop under the Fourth Amendment.

In the majority decision, Justice Susan Christensen writing for herself and Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, and Christopher McDonald, said that any “subjective motivations of an individual officer for making a traffic stop are irrelevant as long as the officer has objectively reasonable cause to believe the motorist violated a traffic law.”

The majority chose to follow the precedent established in Whren v. United States, a Fourth Amendment search and seizure decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996. The high court in that case said that while a temporary detention of a motorist at a traffic stop is a seizure, such stops are reasonable provided a police officer has probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a traffic law violation. Any other motive the officer might have for making the stop is not relevant, the Court said in the unanimous decision.

Iowa’s Supreme Court has since followed that precedent in State v. Griffin and State v. Predka.

By seeking to prohibit pretextual stops based on the Iowa Constitution, Christensen wrote, Brown was asking the Court to say that “a motorist who violates a traffic law has a justified  Court declined to do so, saying even under the Iowa Constitution, “It is reasonable to stop a motorist based on reasonable suspicion that the motorist violated the law.” As recently as 2005, the Court has held that pretextual arrests under Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution are valid, despite the officer’s motive for making the arrest, if probable cause exists.

There is no evidence that the framers of the Iowa Constitution intended to make Article I, Section 8, stronger than the Fourth Amendment in the federal constitution, she wrote. “If the framers of the Iowa Constitution wanted to create greater search and seizure protections for Iowans,” Christensen wrote, “the nearly identical language of Article I, Section 8 to the Fourth Amendment does not reflect this desire.”

Brown’s appeal tested the Court’s willingness to depart from U.S. Supreme Court precedent based on the Federal Constitution and instead look to the meaning of the Iowa Constitution enacted a decade after statehood in 1846.  Iowa’s Supreme Court has in the past parted company with the federal high court on constitutional issues, including cases involving the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  The concurring and dissenting opinions reflects the Court’s disagreement on the role the Federal Constitution guides the Court’s decision under the Iowa Constitution.

In a concurring opinion, Justice McDonald took issue with the argument that the U.S. Constitution “sets the floor for claims arising under the Iowa Constitution.”  He wrote, “this Court has treated the Iowa Constitution as a one-way ratchet to provide only greater rights and remedies than a parallel provision of the United States Constitution.” Although the Iowa Supreme Court “has a duty to independently determine the meaning of the Iowa Constitution,” McDonald wrote, that is the case “whether we interpret the Iowa Constitution to provide less or more protection than the federal Constitution.”  McDonald noted, the Federal Constitution does not set a floor or a ceiling for the Iowa Constitution.

Chief Justice Mark Cady filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice David Wiggins, voicing that the Court is not dictated by the U.S. Supreme Court precedent in Whren, and should not be bound by stare decisis its prior decisions in Griffin and Predka, stating “our understanding of justice and the rights entailed in maintaining justice have evolved,” and “[a]s a branch of government committed to justice and protection of the rights of all Iowans, we should not be so beholden to the past that we prevent ourselves from enacting justice in the present.”

Cady wrote, “Our law must . . . prohibit pretextual traffic stops motivated by race or any other classification, even when probable cause for a traffic violation exists.” “They are offensive to the values of our Constitution and abhorrent to the concept of justice expected by our Constitution. They are one of many reasons to explain why our criminal justice system has disproportionally affected African-Americans in our state and across the nation.”

Justice Brent Appel wrote a separate dissent joined by Wiggins. Appel pointed out that Iowa has 245 pages of motor vehicle laws and regulations, and that police may stop motorists for a “myriad of minor equipment violations,” which give law-enforcement officers countless opportunities to make arbitrary traffic stops.

In his dissent, Appel recited the Iowa Supreme Court’s history of independently interpreting this state’s constitution rather than deferring “lockstep” with the federal court. And he urged the Iowa justices to continue to “‘jealously’ protect our authority to follow an independent approach.”

Appel said that in light of Justice McDonald’s concurring opinion, “it is clear that a majority of this Court continues to embrace this approach.”


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