The Iowa Supreme Court today upheld the ability for police to make minor traffic stops that often lead to more serious violations.
Scottize Brown was pulled over in Waterloo for a traffic violation and was convicted of second offense OWI after the officer found alcohol in the SUV. Brown, asked to have the case thrown out — saying the officer used the traffic violation as a pretext to stop her, and the stop was racially motivated.
Civil rights groups backed Brown, saying people of color are involved in a disproportionate number of the stops. The Supreme Court ruled the subjective motivations of an 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 ruling goes on to say that Brown does not argue that the officer knew she was African-American before initiating the traffic stop. Instead, the observed traffic violations precipitated the officer discovering the vehicle’s registered owner’s gang affiliation. The court acknowledged that “police discretion can lead to racial profiling,” but says “we are not persuaded that Brown’s approach would have any significant impact on eliminating racial profiling.”
The ruling was 4-3 with Chief Justice Mark Cady, Justice David Wiggins and Justice Brent Appel in the minority. Cady in a dissenting opinion, says they cannot overlook the subjective reason for the traffic stops. “Our law must, instead, 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.”
The ACLU of Iowa Released this statement on the case:
“The decision in the Brown case is incredibly disheartening. Today’s opinion upheld the police use of pretext stops in Iowa, despite the fact that they are inherently dishonest and drive racial profiling. A pretext stop is when a police officer uses a common minor traffic violation as an after-the-fact pretext to pull over a driver, when the actual reason for the stop was constitutionally inadequate. As the dissent recognized, given the pervasiveness and sheer volume of traffic regulations, this decision gives police the ability to stop anyone. At any given time, most drivers are committing some minor technical infraction. This gives officers too much discretion in deciding who to stop, and who to let go about their day. That’s where problematic bias against Black people and other people of color comes into play. The time has come for police reforms. Today’s decision is a missed opportunity, and one that will only perpetuate racial disparities in policing in our state. We will not give up. Where the Court’s decision today failed to require these appropriate reforms in traffic stops, the legislature can, and should, act to do so, as can individual police chiefs, and city councils, county sheriffs and county boards of supervisors in Iowa who want to chart a better course in their communities to strengthen law enforcement effectiveness and credibility in the communities they serve.”
Here’s the ruling:
Scottize Brown opinion PDF