UPDATES & ANALYSIS

2.17

Iowa Supreme Court to hear a case with constitutional implications in Feb. 20 evening session

by Rox Laird | February 17, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear an oral argument in a special evening session Monday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m. in the Judicial Branch Building. The evening session is an opportunity for members of the public who might otherwise be unable to attend court sessions to witness an oral argument in person.

The case to be argued – Burnett v. Smith and State of Iowa – involves questions of whether a State motor vehicle enforcement officer is protected from personal liability under the legal principle of qualified immunity, and whether the State is liable for damages through a lawsuit brought under the Iowa Constitution.

One major question presented by this case is whether the Iowa Supreme Court should overrule its 2017 decision in Godfrey v. State, as the Iowa Attorney General urges in a brief filed with the Court on behalf of the State. That would transform an otherwise ordinary traffic stop into a dramatic reversal for the Iowa Supreme Court’s reading of the Iowa Constitution.

[Go to On Brief’s “Cases in the Pipeline” page to read the briefs filed in this case, including a friend of the court brief in support of the State’s position filed by the Iowa League of Cities.]

Burnett is appealing the Johnson County District Court’s ruling granting summary judgment to Smith and the State, meaning the case was decided on the parties’ filings and did not go to trial.

Cory Burnett sued State Motor Vehicle Enforcement Officer Phillip Smith and the State of Iowa after the garbage truck he was driving was stopped by Officer Smith who thought it had a cracked windshield. After stopping the truck, Smith asked Burnett to help him inspect the truck by operating the brake lights.

Burnett refused, telling Smith he could inspect the truck but that he would not help. After some verbal exchanges, Smith arrested Burnett for interference with official acts and took him to jail.

The charge was later dismissed by a magistrate and Burnett then sued the officer arguing he had no probable cause to arrest Burnett for what he calls his ”passive refusal” to assist in the inspection of the truck.

Burnett contends the District Court was wrong to dismiss his suit and to conclude that Officer Smith could not be held personally liable because he was protected by qualified immunity, which as articulated by the Iowa Supreme Court means he had “exercised all due care to conform to the requirements of the law.” Burnett argues Smith did not exercise “all due care” because he was wrong about the law when he accused Burnett of interference when in fact he did not interfere but passively resisted Smith’s order that he help with the inspection.

Burnett further argues the District Court erred in dismissing his damage claim under the Iowa Constitution because Smith violated the Iowa Constitution’s version of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against illegal seizure. He cites the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Godfrey, which recognized a right to seek damages for rights violations under the Iowa Constitution “when the legislature has not provided an adequate remedy.”

In response to Burnett’s claims, the State argues that Officer Smith’s arrest was lawful because “Burnett’s refusal to allow his brakes to be inspected hindered Officer Smith’s investigation, which provided probable cause and reasonable grounds to arrest him for interference with official acts.”

Beyond that, the State maintains the Iowa Supreme Court has never recognized a right to bring a civil suit under the Iowa Constitution for a search-and-seizure violation. Rather, it recognized a constitutional claim only for a violation of due process in Godfrey.

The State argues Godfrey was wrongly decided and should be overturned, saying “the Court in Godfrey misread the Iowa Constitution.” At the very least, the State says Godfrey should not be extended to other claims under the Iowa Constitution.

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