DES MOINES — An attorney for the state Department of Transportation argued Thursday that Iowa law would be turned “on its head” if the Iowa Supreme Court does not reverse a lower court ruling that its officers do not have the authority to issue tickets for speeding and other traffic violations.
“The public safety function, it seems to me, goes out the window,” Robin Formaker said in urging the seven justices to overturn district court rulings that DOT “blue coat” enforcement officers did not have the legal authority to issue tickets in recent years.
However, Brandon Brown, an attorney representing clients who have successfully challenged DOT-issued citations, urged the justices to rule the DOT had conferred police powers on their officers not granted to them by the Iowa Legislature and to reject the state’s “Hail Mary” attempt to justify the practice using a citizen’s arrest statute “to validate 40 years of improper action.”
“Since the creation of the Department of Transportation in 1974,” Brown said during Wednesday’s oral arguments, “the DOT has systematically been issuing tickets to motorists — tens of thousands, and if you extrapolate it out over the decades, hundreds of thousands of tickets — in violation of this court’s holding … as well as in violation of the statutory limited authority that they have (in the Iowa code).”
At issue is an ongoing legal battle in which multiple district judges have ruled that Iowa law does not give DOT officers the authority to issue most noncommercial traffic citations. Ultimately, an adverse outcome could force the state to remove those citations from drivers’ records and refund collected fines.
In the case before the Supreme Court, Formaker argued Polk County District Court Judge Eliza Ovrom “rigidly” relied on an outdated 1948 ruling that does not recognize relevant changes in ruling against the DOT.
“It’s as if the law was frozen in time in 1948 and in the ensuing 70 years there have been no developments, nothing in the law that might alter the analysis,” he said.
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He noted that the DOT did not exist then, and state Highway Commission employees were not peace officers, while DOT motor vehicle enforcement officers do have peace officer status.
“It’s ludicrous to think that our law is rendered so ineffectual and so irrelevant that a certified peace officer has no authority to pursue a violator,” Formaker argued.
Brown told the justices the affected motorists in legal challenges have petitioned for class-action status but have not been certified while they exhaust their administrative remedies. The Supreme Court decision in the case argued Wednesday will not affect that case where a ruling is still pending.
The Iowa Legislature in 2017 approved legislation that allowed DOT motor vehicle enforcement officers on a temporary basis to act with the same police powers as the Department of Public Safety’s state troopers. Lawmakers lifted the temporary status last session.
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