Iowa Appeals Court Affirms State Cops Can’t Use Their Ignorance Of The Law To Justify Traffic Stops
from the exception-to-the-national-rule-tho dept
In December 2014, the US Supreme Court extended its blessing of pretextual stops to cover imaginary moving violations. Ignorance of the law is the best excuse, cops were told in the Court’s Heien decision. All cops needed to do was make a “reasonable” error when interpreting the laws they enforce and that mistake could be converted into reasonable suspicion supporting the stop.
That precedent governs police behavior almost everywhere in the nation. Almost everywhere. Here’s one notable exception: the state of Iowa. In this state, ignorance of the law cannot justify traffic stops. Cops need to witness actual moving violations to start depriving someone of their liberty, a point recently reiterated by the state appeals court. (h/t FourthAmendment.com)
The decision [PDF] is short — only six pages — but it’s long enough to say it louder for the Iowa cops in the back.
The Cedar Rapids cops who pulled over Rayshaun Friend claimed they were compelled to initiate the stop because they thought Friend’s temporary tag had a fraudulent expiration date. That stop led to a search, which led to the discovery of marijuana in Friend’s pocket. Friend was also driving with a suspended license.
Friend moved to suppress the evidence, alleging the officers had no reasonable suspicion any criminal act had taken place. As for the allegedly fraudulent date, Friend pointed to extensions granted to temporary tags due to government service interruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cops argued otherwise. Sort of. They admitted they were wrong about the temporary tag but right about a different violation — one not originally cited in their paperwork.
In its resistance to the motion, the State conceded the officers were “mistaken” in their belief that the “temporary tag . . . was fraudulent.” Nonetheless, the State asserted the officers “had probable cause to initiate a traffic stop” based on Friend’s failure “to yield the right of way” to an emergency vehicle.
But the “failure to yield” was directly related to the officers’ attempt to pull Friend over for the supposedly illegal temporary tag. That much was clear from the dash cam video. The lower court, however, said this attempt to salvage a bad stop was fine.
It is clear that the vehicle did not immediately pull to the side of the road as required by Iowa Code Section 321.324(2) [(2021)1] . . . . At the time the officers activated their emergency lights, they were directly behind [Friend’s] vehicle. From the evidence presented, there appears to be no obstructions that would prevent [Friend] from immediately pulling to the side of the road as required by law. [Friend’s] failure to yield to the police car for two and a half blocks does create an intervening and independent justification for a vehicle stop.
If Friend had immediately pulled over, there would have been no justification for the stop. That’s the conclusion reached by both levels of the court. The state appeals court, however, takes the time to drive the point home that officers’ ignorance of the law cannot justify stops, even with the US Supreme Court’s ruling in place.
As noted, the State conceded that the stop could not be supported by the officers’ mistaken belief concerning the validity of the temporary tag. The State now suggests a reasonable mistake of law might provide reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop. The State relies on Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 61 (2014), in which the United States Supreme Court stated, “[t]here is no reason, under the text of the Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why [reasonable suspicion] should be acceptable when reached by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but not when reached by way of a similarly reasonable mistake of law.”
All well and good, but Heien doesn’t apply in Iowa under the state’s constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States sets the baseline. States are free to provide greater protections for residents under their own constitutions. That’s what Iowa has done, and the higher-than-Heien standard still applies.
The language does indeed support the State’s suggestion. But Iowa has gone in a different direction. As Friend points out, the supreme court held “a mistake of law is not sufficient to justify a stop.” State v. Tyler, (Iowa 2013); see also State v. Louwrens, 792 N.W.2d 649, 654 (Iowa 2010) […] The court reaffirmed
that position following Heien. See State v. Scheffert, 910 N.W.2d 577, 585 n.2 (Iowa 2018); see also State v. Coleman, 890 N.W.2d 284, 298 n.2 (Iowa 2017); Baldwin v. Estherville, 333 F. Supp. 3d 817, 837 (N.D. Iowa 2018) (discussing difference between federal and state constitution on mistake of law). The court stated:
After our decision in Tyler, the United States Supreme Court decided that a reasonable mistake of law could support reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop. Heien[, 574 U.S. at 61]. Thus, the mistake-of-law doctrine is broader under the United States Constitution than it is under the Iowa Constitution.
. . . . Subsequent to Heien, we reaffirmed Tyler. See State v. Coleman, 890 N.W.2d 284, 298 n.2 (Iowa 2017) (“[T]he ruling in Tyler under the Iowa Constitution is unaffected by Heien.”).
Ring up another mistake of law for the Cedar Rapids cops. And add one to the government’s tab for citing precedent that does not apply under the state constitution.
Unfortunately for Friend, his failure to immediately pull over after the officers fired up their lights (but not their siren) provides its own, lawful basis for a stop. That these lights would never have been activated without the cops being wrong about the temporary tag law is, sadly, considered to be incidental to the discussion. The court says there’s no need to consider the “new crime exception” to reasonable suspicion requirements because it’s kind of like being arrested for resisting an unlawful arrest. Even if the first arrest attempt was wrong, officers can convert it into a second arrest for the crime provoked by their initial, unlawful arrest.
So, not a win by any means. But it does at least force cops in Iowa to actually know the laws they’re enforcing and it serves as a handy reminder that just because the US Supreme Court sets a low bar for law enforcement doesn’t mean every other state in the nation needs to sink to its level.