DES MOINES, Iowa — Civil rights groups in Iowa are asking for the Iowa Supreme Court to ban minor traffic stops.
The groups involved are 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. They say minor traffic or equipment violations should be declared unconstitutional.
On Thursday, these groups filed an amicus brief with the Iowa Supreme Court to declare “pretexual” traffic stops as unconstitutional. The groups say those are traffic stops where an officer uses a minor traffic violation like a burnt-out license plate light or improper turn to stop a driver, often on the basis of skin color.
“Sadly, racial profiling isn’t illegal in Iowa,” said Mark Stringer, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa. “We believe it should be. Our efforts with the Iowa Supreme Court to stop pretextual stops by police is one effort that we’re making to try to mitigate racial profiling in the state.”
Stringer says the ACLU of Iowa and several other coalition partners are working with the legislature to present a bill aimed at stopping racial profiling entirely. But in the meantime, civil rights groups are asking the Iowa Supreme Court to take action to mitigate the problem.
“By setting a precedent, if they were to rule in our favor, the brief that we filed, it would set a precedent that would eliminate a portion of the components that lead to racial profiling,” said Stringer. “It wouldn’t deal completely with racial profiling, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction and it’s something that should be done, because pretextual stops, stops that are made on a false pretense, basically, are unconstitutional. They’re unreasonable. They’re unfair, and they’re unjust.”
State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, a Democrat serving Polk County, says some police officers, but not all, do use minor traffic stops to disproportionately target people of color.
“If somebody’s tail light’s out, there’s nothing wrong with saying your tail light’s out, get it fixed,” said Abdul-Samad. “Why use that and say the tail light’s out, next thing you know, individuals are laying on the ground, individuals cars are being searched, and when you see in the numbers, the disproportionate numbers of individuals that are people of color, you know, that end up with extended charges or being stopped, then that’s a problem.”
But police say the laws on the books are there for a reason, and they’re just enforcing them.
“Part of our job is the enforcement of traffic violations and of safety violations on vehicles,” said Sergeant Ryan Doty of the Des Moines Police Department. “That’s part of our job, and so yes, we are out there enforcing those violations, but not based on race or anything other than the violation.”
Sgt. Doty says if the laws are done away with, police will stop enforcing them.