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Iowa Supreme Court Considers Shutting Down DOT Speeding Tickets
Iowa Supreme Court to decide whether state Department of Transportation employees can issue speeding tickets under citizen arrest authority.

Iowa DOT enforcement
The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) wants its officers to have the power to issue traffic tickets, but motorists are challenging the agency's authority to do so. Last week, the state Supreme Court began formally deliberating whether non-police officers should be allowed to continue stopping motorists on Iowa highways so that they can be handed a speeding ticket.

The state legislature gave IDOT's Motor Vehicle Enforcement division the power to enforce regulations governing commercial vehicles, ensuring big rig trucks were properly registered and did not exceed allowed weight limits. IDOT decided to expand that power to generate additional revenue by writing speeding tickets to motorists under "citizen's arrest" authority. The agency slowly ramped up its use of radar guns over the course of a few years.

"Our policy on a non-commercial traffic was to stop them if we had a speed violation that was 25 miles per hour or greater over the speed limit," IDOT employee Robert Wittkowski explained in sworn testimony. "The policy now is there is no restriction on speed violation for a non-commercial motor vehicle stop."

The agency now spends most of its time manning radar guns. Between 2014 and 2016, IDOT employees wrote 12,840 traffic tickets to ordinary motorists compared to 9400 tickets for commercial vehicles. Representing ticketed motorists, attorney Brandon Brown insists IDOT has no power whatsoever to enforce any laws beyond the commercial vehicle code enforcement authorized by law.

"The authority to enforce the laws of Iowa necessarily must derive from the Iowa Code," Brown wrote. "This is no less true when speed restrictions are involved.... The IDOT's policy to detain and cite those observed violating speeding laws [is] an official law enforcement policy of citizen's arresting. The absurdity is self-evident."

Brown points out that a citizen's arrest is defined as an arrest made by a "private person," not by someone working in his capacity as a government official. A person arrested under this authority must also be immediately taken to a judge or a police officer. In the case of IDOT traffic stops, they are, instead, handed a citation.

"A citizen who observed a violation of a traffic law would not have the ability to pull another motorist over and run that motorist's license and registration through a law enforcement database," Brown said. "By the IDOT's logic... the IDOT could send Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers to college bars to cite individuals for underage drinking. Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers could patrol the aisles of Wal-Mart to crack down on theft."

The Iowa Supreme Court will now make its decision on the controversy without hearing oral arguments.

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