DES MOINES, Iowa — Three civil rights groups hope an Iowa case can change what they believe is causing a racial disparities across the country. “Quite frankly it is a crisis,” said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP says minorities are falling victim to pretextual stops for minor infractions such as a broken tail light. “The proverbial driving while black,” said Andrews.
On Tuesday, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments from the Iowa NAACP, ACLU, and LULAC on behalf of Scottize Brown, an African-American woman who was pulled over in 2015 by Waterloo police for having two of her rear license plate lights out. “It is a devastating ordeal to be put through when you are stopped just because of how you look. Just because of the color of your skin,” said Andrews.
Once brown was pulled over, the officer then noticed an empty beer can in the vehicle and smelled alcohol on Brown’s breath and cited Brown for driving while intoxicated. It is a charge Andrews believed should have never happened and was unconstitutionally made. Brown refused to take a breathalyzer test. Andrews said, “There’s a point where we have to draw a line and when people feel invaded we need to draw that line.”
The groups say statistics prove racial disparity exists in Iowa where African-Americans make up just 3.5% of Iowans. Andrews said, “We are number three in the nation when it comes to African-American disparities. For every eleven African-Americans per capita, one white person is in our criminal justice system.”
Two years ago the Des Moines police department heard similar cries. Sergeant Paul Parizek said, “We got a lot of feedback from the community along the lines of hey you are stopping us for these minor violations. They are just simple things and we were like well we can help eliminate the problem.” A tail light check up has been held every year since. It allows the community to fix minor traffic violations on their cars for free. Parizek says it has made a big difference in the community. “Every time you’ve got a good relationship with somebody it is so much easier to communicate with them. It’s just a small program like this that has such a big reward in the end,” said Parizek
It isn’t a cure-all. The NAACP says a recent lawsuit against the Des Moines Police Department, where two black men were pulled over with no reason and even placed in handcuffs sheds a bright light on why Tuesday’s Iowa Supreme Court hearing on a pretextual traffic stop is so crucial. “It would be great in the realm of criminal justice reform to be known as the leader in looking at these issues and eliminating driving while black,” said Andrews.
The oral argument hearing for this case will be held Tuesday September 19, at 1:30pm. An Iowa summit on justice and disparities will be held October 16 fromm 8am-4:30pm at the FFA Enrichment Center in Ankeny.