Iowa Supreme Court: DOT Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers exceeded their authority on traffic citations

By: Rox Laird on October 25th, 2018

Iowa Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers are authorized to issue traffic citations to drivers only for statutory regulations relating to vehicle operating authority, registration, size, weight, and load, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Oct. 18.

That authority does not include issuing citations for other violations, such as speeding, the Court held in a unanimous decision written by Justice Edward Mansfield. Nor were such citations by DOT officers authorized by the “citizen’s arrest” provision of the Iowa Code.

Rickie Rilea and Timothy Riley separately appealed their speeding citations issued by DOT enforcement officers in Warren County, which were upheld by the department. Polk County District Judge Eliza Ovrom, however, overruled the DOT in Rilea and Riley’s consolidated appeals.

Affirming Judge Ovrom’s ruling, the Supreme Court read the language of the Iowa Code to empower DOT Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers to enforce only specific traffic regulations related to vehicle size, weight and registration.

In addition, Mansfield pointed out that the Iowa Legislature expressly prohibited other State departments – such as the DOT – from employing peace officers to enforce state laws that are specifically reserved to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

The DOT argued in the alternative that its enforcement officers could make a “citizen’s arrest,” but the Court shot that down, as well, for two reasons. First, the Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers were acting not as private persons but in their official capacity. Second, while the Iowa Code authorizes a citizen to make an arrest, the DOT officers issued citations in lieu of arrests, an option that is limited to peace officers.

In a related case, the Court on Oct. 19 issued a second unanimous ruling in State v. Werner, which raised substantially the same issues.

In that case, however, the appellant was arrested by a DOT Motor Vehicle Enforcement officer for driving while his license was revoked. Werner challenged his arrest on the same grounds as in the Rilea and Riley case, and moved to suppress evidence from that stop.

The Court considered and dismissed additional arguments raised by the State in the Werner decision, vacated Werner’s conviction, reversed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress the evidence and remanded the case for further proceedings.

According to appellees Rilea and Riley, DOT officers issued more than 12,000 citations for violations unrelated to DOT regulations over a two-year period ending August 2016, exceeding the number of citations issued for regulatory violations.

In light of legal challenges to the vehicle enforcement officers’ authority, the Iowa Legislature in 2017 amended state law to authorize such citations, which took effect after these two appeals were filed. The amendment will sunset July 1, 2019.

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