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Iowa Supreme Court: DOT officers can't write traffic tickets

Imagine you're headed down the highway and are signaled to pull over by an official state vehicle. It's the Iowa Department of Transportation, and they say they spotted a traffic violation you committed a couple of miles back. They issue you a $150 ticket.

That scenario actually happened to over 22,000 drivers between 2014 and 2016. With an average ticket of about $150, IDOT helped the state take in over $3.3 million in fines. There's only one problem: IDOT is not authorized to issue traffic tickets to ordinary drivers. The agency's policing powers are limited to the regulation of commercial vehicles.

That is what the Iowa Supreme Court found recently in a set of consolidated cases brought by three drivers who were ticketed by IDOT. Iowa law limits IDOT's ticketing authority to issues relating to commercial vehicle registrations; size, weight and load problems; and operating authority. IDOT is not authorized to issue other types of traffic citations at all.

Two district court judges had split on the question of IDOT's ticketing authority. In Polk County, two drivers whom IDOT stopped for speeding challenged the agency's right to issue citations. The Polk County judge agreed with the drivers. IDOT appealed.

An Iowa County judge sided with IDOT after the department arrested a man in 2016 for driving on a suspended license. The driver appealed his conviction.

IDOT made two main arguments. First, it said, that its carrier enforcement officers should legally be considered "peace officers," who have broader policing powers, because they receive the same training as law enforcement officers. The Supreme Court turned that argument aside, pointing to a 1948 ruling specifically limiting IDOT's policing powers to the regulation of commercial vehicles.

Second, the agency argued that, should carrier enforcement officers be found not to have "peace officer" powers, they were acting as private persons for the purpose of making citizen arrests. The Supreme Court ruled that the law does not allow peace officers to act as private persons for the purpose of arrests. Furthermore, state law doesn't allow private citizens to ticket drivers.

After the ruling, IDOT urged the legislature to change the law. "We truly feel that public safety is best served when all trained peace officers are able to respond to traffic events that occur in their presence."

Yet at least 22,000 people in Iowa have been arrested or ticketed by an agency with no authority to do so. That could be considered unreasonable search and seizure activity, which violates people's rights.

The state is now facing a class action by wrongly ticketed drivers seeking to recover their fines and legal costs.

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