Court: IDOT officers limited to commercial vehicle offenses
By MARGERY A. BECK
Iowa Department of Transportation officers overstepped their authority in arresting or issuing speeding tickets to drivers outside of the regulation of commercial vehicles, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The ruling could have implications in a pending class-action lawsuit that seeks to recoup the fines and legal fees of thousands of motorists ticketed by Iowa carrier enforcement officers in recent years.
Friday’s finding came in separate 2016 cases in which lower courts split on the issue, with Iowa County judges finding that carrier enforcement officers did have such authority, while a judge in Polk County ruled that IDOT officers did not.
On Friday, the state’s high court deemed that Iowa law allowed the officers to make arrests and issue tickets only for violations relating to operating authority, registration, size, weight and load of commercial vehicles — not for other traffic violations.
State law changed in May 2017, temporarily giving IDOT officers the authority to ticket drivers of noncommercial vehicles until July 2019.
The cases decided Friday involved the ticketing in 2016 of Rickie Rilea and Timothy Riley in separate stops for speeding. Both challenged the authority of a carrier enforcement officer to issue speeding tickets. Polk County District Judge Eliza Ovrom agreed in 2017 that the department officers lacked that authority, and IDOT appealed.
In a separate case, Jeremy Warner appealed after judges in Iowa County District Court sided with the department after he was arrested in 2016 and later convicted of driving while his license was suspended.
In arguing both cases, attorneys for the department said a segment of Iowa law pertaining to “peace officers” gave its officers the authority to arrest and ticket drivers outside of carrier enforcement. IDOT attorneys also argued that even if the courts found that law didn’t convey that authority, state law would allow department officers to make “citizen arrests.”
The high court rejected both arguments, citing its 1948 ruling in a case that limited the scope of the department’s policing powers to commercial vehicle regulation. Peace officers don’t get to claim “private person” status for the purpose of arrests, the high court said, adding that nothing in state law allows private citizens to issue traffic citations.
A spokeswoman for the department said state officials are disappointed with the ruling, noting that carrier enforcement officers go through the same law enforcement training as state troopers, sheriffs and police officers.
“This is something that will have to be decided by the Legislature in the next legislative session,” IDOT communications director Andrea Henry said Friday. “We truly feel that public safety is best served when all trained peace officers are able to respond to traffic events that occur in their presence.”
Des Moines attorney Brandon Brown, who represented all the drivers cited by carrier enforcement officers, said he plans to resume work on the class action lawsuit, which was stayed pending the outcome of the legal challenges.
If he prevails, the state could be on the hook for millions of dollars in fines and legal costs for motorists ticketed in recent years. The statute of limitations on such claims would restrict those who could seek repayment to those ticketed within the last five to six years, Brown said.
“We maintain that the state of Iowa has been unjustly enriched by issuing speeding tickets to tens of thousands of people in violation of the law,” he said.
Brown’s research has turned up more than 22,000 drivers ticketed by IDOT officers outside of carrier enforcement from 2014 through 2016, and the average ticket amount came to about $150, he said. That’s more than $3.3 million in fines for the two years.