1/24/2017Iowa Supreme Court Nullifies DUI Arrest Fees
Cops may not bill motorists for routine police work by calling it an emergency response, Iowa Supreme Court rules.
Driving under the influence (DUI) is a serious crime carrying court-imposed penalties that typically cost those convicted around $10,000. Officials in Scott County, Iowa decided they could get some of that money for themselves by directly billing DUI suspects for the "emergency response" provided by police. The practice ended Friday with the Iowa Supreme Court declaring it unlawful.
The high court took up three cases in which tipsy drivers were billed up to $159 for the investigation of an alleged DUI. On April 7, 2015, in one case, Davenport Police Officer Michael Stegall pulled over Homer Christner, spending two hours conducting roadside sobriety tests and booking him in the county jail. So before the court had sentenced Christner, the city billed the man for the officer's time at the rate of $61 per hour, plus $36 for the two hours that his police squad car was out of service.
Iowa law allows for courts to order "restitution" for the costs of an emergency response, up to $500. Prosecutors wanted to stretch the idea of emergency response to include any time the police are called to a scene. The three DUI suspects each argued that there was no "emergency" involved in their routine traffic stops. There was no accident, there were no injuries and nobody dialed 911. The justices ruled that the statute in question was badly drafted and ambiguous, so determining whether it applied to routine law enforcement stops required looking at the goals lawmakers had in mind when drafting the statute.
"If the legislature's definition of a term is partially circular, in that it repeats a word to be defined within the definition itself, we need to look outside the definition to ascertain the meaning of that word," Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote for the court.
The justices said if the legislature wanted DUI restitution fees to be a routine charge, it would have been easier to impose a set fee rather than force lawyers to argue about exact amounts in court during each and every case. The gist of the restitution law, they argued, applied to exceptional circumstances, not ordinary traffic stops.
"The stop was proper, indeed commendable, because it removed a drunk driver from the highways," Justice Mansfield concluded. "But this is not the type of case for which public agency restitution is statutorily authorized."
A copy of the decision is available in a 120k PDF file at the source link below.