It's a story you hear all the time, either in the media or from a friend. Or maybe you've even experienced it: A person of color is driving and is stopped by the police for no apparent reason, although a minor traffic violation is alleged. 
An amicus brief filed by the ACLU of Iowa and other civil rights organizations is working to get that changed. In that amicus brief, the ACLU of Iowa, Iowa-Nebraska Conference of the NAACP, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa, and 1,000 Kids for Iowa urged the Iowa Supreme Court to declare pretext traffic stops unconstitutional.
Pretext stops are what they sound like: they are a traffic stop that the officer says they make for one reason, like a minor traffic or vehicle equipment violation, but that is a pretext, because they actually make the stop for a different reason that would not provide a lawful basis to make the stop under the constitution, like finding the driver's race, location, sex, car or record "suspicious." That's where the implicit or explicit racial bias comes into play, especially in the context of the failed War on Drugs where officers are more likely to percieve a black driver as involved in narcotics or gang activity than a white one.
But, because none of those bases would constitute reasonable suspicion or probable cause that is required under the Constitution, the officer stops the vehicle on pretext of a minor traffic or equipment violation.

Pretexual Stops Drive Racial Profiling 

Pretextual stops involving people of color have been much in the news recently because of the racial disparities in the stops themselves, as well as the citations and arrests that follow. In some cases, they have even lead to the death of those stopped, as in the cases of Philando Castille in Minnesota and Walter Scott in Charleston, both described in the brief.
The civil rights organizations’ amicus brief argues that pretextual stops are unreasonable, and therefore not permitted by the Iowa Constitution because they drive racial profiling and put people of color at risk of police violence.
 “Pretextual traffic stops have driven system-wide disparities on the basis of race,” said Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director. “They are 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. Now is the time for the police reform movement to be bolstered by an equally ambitious movement for court reform.”

Statistics Tell the Story 

The amicus brief includes Iowa statistics on the disproportionately high rate of traffic stops for minorities, data we collected using open records requests to show racial disparities in traffic stops and traffic searches by Iowa law enforcement. We also argue for the court that the real world impact of pretext stops--racial disparities--demonstrate their unconstitutionality.

The state has tried to minimize the data in its briefing, which is consistent with reports of racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system across the board. But we have no doubt that pretext stops drive racial profiling in Iowa, just like they do across the country.

The numbers tell the story:

  • A study of traffic stops in Iowa City found that minorities make up roughly 10 percent of the drivers in the city yet they account for as much as 19 percent of the traffic stops. 
  • In Linn County, African Americans are 25 percent more likely than white people to be cited rather than warned when stopped for a traffic violation.
  • Scott County data show that African Americans are almost three times as likely to be stopped for traffic violations than white drivers and almost twice as likely to be arrested after the stop.  
  • Waterloo* had the worst disparities in the traffic stop data. While African-Americans make up just 15.3 percent of the population, data from the Waterloo Police Department show that 37.8 percent of traffic stops were of Black drivers. Black drivers were also substantially more likely to be arrested and searched and substantially less likely to be merely warned than white drivers. 

Amicus Supports Waterloo Case 

The amicus brief has been filed to support the appeal filed by State Appellate Defender Theresa Wilson on behalf of Scottize Danyelle Brown from Black Hawk County District Court. In that case Ms. Brown is arguing that her conviction for Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) and driving with a suspended license should be reversed because the evidence it was based upon resulted from an unlawful pretextual stop. 
Ms. Brown was stopped under the pretext that one of her two license plate lamps was not functioning and because she travelled through a yellow light that turned red while she was in the intersection. However, that is not illegal when a driver cannot stop the vehicle at an intersection in safety prior to a light change. Also, the police dash-cam video showed that the license plates were in fact legible based on the one functioning lamp. Iowa law merely requires “either the rear lamp or a separate lamp shall be so constructed and placed as to illuminate with a white light the rear registration plate and render it clearly legible from a distance of fifty feet to the rear.” 
Further, district court testimony of the police officer makes it clear that the real reason Ms. Brown was stopped was because the officer believed her vehicle to be registered to a person the officer believed to be linked to gang activity. The officer who stopped Ms. Brown testified that he simply wanted to “poke around and see what’s up” and “appeared surprised to find out the only people in the [vehicle] were two women.” 

Two Roadways in Iowa 

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP State Area Conferences of Branches, said that pretexual stops have created two very different experiences for white Iowans and Iowans of color. “Pretextual stops have led to Iowa roads that are, in practice, segregated: white people drive on roads where they generally don’t get pulled over for minor traffic infractions.  But people of color do not get to drive on those same roads in the same way,” Andrews said.
Instead, drivers of color too often are pulled over for minor infractions. And when they do get pulled over they can lose their lives, Andrews said. Nationally, the deaths of Philando Castille and Walter Scott, which are described in the brief, are tragic examples of this problem. The danger of these stops is brought home through the shooting of Jerime Mitchell here in Iowa.”
Mitchell is an African American man who lives in Cedar Rapids. He was shot in the neck and paralyzed in November 2016 after he was stopped by Officer Lucas Jones, also under the pretext of a license plate light being burned out, though the dash cam video shows the officer began pursuing him at a distance that such a pretext would have been impossible to detect and showed an illuminated plate, Andrews said. 

What can you do? Call or email your state senator and state representative. Tell them you want to see a meaningful anti-racial profiling bill passed in the Iowa Legislature this session.

Click here to find your Iowa legislative representatives with contact information.

Together, we can build a more fair Iowa.