Iowa could become the fourth state to reject a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Whren v. U.S.) that has allowed the police to racially profile drivers while hiding behind the Constitution. A legal victory could give momentum toward ending driving while Black police stops.
Driving while Black has long been a problem for African Americans on roadways across the country. A survey released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014 shows the racial disparity in police stops.
Justices on the Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday from civil liberties organizations in a case involving an African-American driver stopped by an officer who admitted to pulling her over under the pretext of an alleged minor offense. His real intent was to satisfy his wild suspicion of criminal activity because of her race.
“This case has the potential to dramatically reduce racial profiling in traffic stops in Iowa, since pretextual traffic stops have driven system-wide disparities on the basis of race,” Rita Bettis Austen, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Legal Director, told NewsOne.
If the court rules favorably for Scottize Brown, then Iowa would join Delaware, New Mexico and Washington, which have already interpreted their state constitutions to ban pretextual stops that the U.S. Supreme Court authorized.
In 2015, an officer stopped Brown, of Waterloo, Iowa, under the pretext that one of her two license plate lamps was malfunctioning and because she drove through a yellow light that turned red — neither of which is illegal under Iowa law.
During the stop, the officer noticed an empty beer can in the vehicle and smelled alcohol on her breath. He cited her, and she was later convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol, as well as driving on a suspended license.
At trial, the officer testified that he really stopped Brown because he wanted to “poke around and see what’s up,” according to legal documents.
Brown’s lawyers told the justices that the officer had no reasonable suspicion under Iowa’s Constitution to stop and search her in the first place. The officer targeted her only because of her race — a big problem in Iowa.
The racial profiling of drivers is “inherently dishonest, and for people of color, we’ve seen too many times that they are dangerous. For every police encounter that results in injury or death, there are thousands more that don’t, but which lead to fear and distrust in police,” Austen said.
In Whren v. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that as long as officers have a reasonable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred, they may stop any vehicle. That ruling has allowed the cops to find, or manufacture, reasons to stop and search vehicles.
Brown’s lawyers asked the court to interpret the state’s constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure to include a ban on pretextual stops based on a driver’s race.
A decision is expected around June 2019.