Iowa Supreme Court rules state DOT officers issued nearly 13,000 tickets illegally

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 10/23/2018

The Iowa Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court’s decision in a case that decided how much law enforcement authority is granted to the Iowa Department of Transportation after Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers issued nearly 13,000 citations to noncommercial drivers. Both courts decided IDOT overstepped its authority, effectively nullifying those traffic tickets.

On Oct. 19, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs suing IDOT over citations they say the department had no business issuing. The court relied on two statutes that pertain to IDOT’s enforcement authority: Iowa Code sections 321.477 and 804.9.

At the time of the citations in question, section 321.477 regulated IDOT peace officers by stating the following (emphasis added):

“The department may designate by resolution certain of its employees upon each of whom there is hereby conferred the authority of a peace officer to control and direct traffic and weigh vehicles, and to make arrests for violations of the motor vehicle laws relating to the operating authority, registration, size, weight, and load of motor vehicles and trailers and registration of a motor carrier’s interstate transportation service with the department.”

The Supreme Court interpreted this to mean the statute did not provide authority for arrests relating to other traffic violations.

Section 804.9 deals with arrests by private persons, which states a private person can make an arrest “for a public offense committed or attempted in the person's presence.” However, the statute does not extend to individuals who are not private citizens, including DOT officers. Even if it did, it does not give authority to issue citations.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court ruled that IDOT never had the authority to issue traffic citations not related to operating authority, registration, size, weight and load of motor vehicles and trailers.

Rickie Rilea and Timothy Riley vs. IDOT
The case stems from a lawsuit filed by two people who were cited by an IDOT MVE officer in September 2016. Rickie Rilea was driving on Interstate 35 southbound in Warrant County when pulled over and issued a ticket for going 66 mph in a 55 mph work zone. Timothy Riley was cited for a similar offense approximately two weeks later.

In March 2017, Rilea and Riley sought declaratory orders, claiming that IDOT MVE employees issued more than 12,840 citations unrelated to their authority between August 2014 and August 2016. In fact, IDOT officers wrote more of those tickets than tickets related to their job. Within the same time frame, IDOT officers issued only 9,400 citations relating to operating authority, registration, size, weight and load.

The plaintiffs also accused IDOT of having a policy directing officers to cite motorists violating any Iowa law. Despite submitted exhibits that suggested such a policy existed, IDOT denied the accusation.

In response to the controversy behind IDOT officers’ authority, Iowa Code section 321.477 was amended in May 2017 to add the following:

“[IDOT] may designate by resolution certain of its employees upon each of whom there is conferred the authority of a peace officer to enforce all laws of the state including but not limited to the rules and regulations of the department. Employees designated as peace officers pursuant to this section shall have the same powers conferred by law on peace officers for the enforcement of all laws of this state and the apprehension of violators.”

The new language essentially gives IDOT the authority to stop and cite all motorists for any law violation outside its original scope. New authority was supposed to last until July 1, 2018, but was extended another year until July 1, 2019.

According to the Supreme Court opinion, IDOT argued that allowing its officers to ticket speeding vehicles in construction zones enhances public safety.

“However, general considerations of public policy are not enough here to outweigh clear statutory language or longstanding precedent,” the court opined.

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