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Iowa Supreme Court to decide legality of pretextual traffic stops

When an African-American woman from Waterloo named Scottize Brown was pulled over in 2015, it had little to do with her behavior. The officer who pulled her over had run the license plate on the vehicle she was driving and learned that the owner had alleged gang affiliations.

That wasn't enough to legally justify stopping Brown, however, so the officer did the next best thing. He pulled her over for suspicion of driving through a yellow light. He also noticed, perhaps after he had stopped her, that the vehicle had a burned-out light on its license plate.

Brown was not the vehicle's owner, however. She does not have any gang connections. It seems she wasn't convicted of anything the officer had alleged to justify pulling her over. She was, however, found guilty of DWI.

Should police officers be allowed to use pretexts when pulling people over? That is, should they be allowed to cite minor traffic offenses when justifying a traffic stop -- even when the traffic offense was not the main reason for the stop? What if the actual reason were legally insufficient, such as the driver's race?

Both the federal and Iowa constitutions prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, and traffic stops are considered government searches. In 1996, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Whren v. United States that, as far as the U.S. Constitution is concerned, police are free to use any legitimate traffic violation as the justification for a traffic stop, even when they had another motive -- and even if that motive may have been illegitimate.

As we've discussed before on this blog, however, the Iowa Supreme Court reserves the right to interpret its own Constitution, even if it contains the same wording as the federal Constitution. In some cases, that has meant the Iowa Constitution offers the people greater protections than the federal one.

The ACLU of Iowa, the NAACP and other civil rights groups filed a brief in Brown's case. They argue that allowing pretextual traffic stops gives cover to any police officers who wish to engage in racial profiling. They also pointed out that African-Americans Philando Castille and Walter Scott were both shot by police officers after being pulled over for broken tail lights.

The state argues that a holding against pretextual traffic stops would substantially affect the administration of justice, among other issues.

It is unclear whether racial profiling occurred in Brown's case, but Chief Justice Mark Cady acknowledged the reality of racial disparities in the justice system, along with the concerns about policing practices within the African-American community.

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