A Case for Truck Drivers and the Fourth Amendment

Commercial Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers throughout the state of Iowa routinely engage in a practice of “random patrol stops” of commercial vehicles to conduct various levels of inspections. These stops are conducted completely at the discretion of the stopping officer without any sort of neutral, pre-determined criteria that determines which vehicles are going to be stopped and which vehicles are going to be left alone. The lawyers at GRL Law are confident that this practice violates the commercial truck driver’s constitutional rights when they are stopped pursuant to these practices.
When an officer of the law, by means of physical force or show of authority, restrains a persons’ liberty, the protections of the search and seizure clauses of both the United States Constitution (4th Amendment) and the Constitution of the State of Iowa (article 1 section 8) are brought into play. This occurs every time a traffic stop of a motor vehicle takes place. Ordinarily, in order to justify a stop of a motor vehicle, the stopping officer must have either probable cause to believe the operator has committed a traffic offense or reasonable suspicion to believe the occupants of the vehicle are involved in some sort of criminal activity. If neither of these levels of suspicion exist, law enforcement may not lawfully stop a vehicle.
However, there are limited circumstances where law enforcement may stop vehicles pursuant pre-determined protocols implemented pursuant to a plan embodying explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of the individual officers. These are commonly referred to as checkpoints or roadblocks. There are strict requirements for the use of roadblocks and checkpoints in the State of Iowa, especially when they involve private motor vehicles. At a minimum, roadblocks must meet the following criteria.

  1. A checkpoint or roadblock location selected for its safety and visibility to oncoming motorists;
  2. Adequate advance warning signs, illuminated at night, timely informing approaching motorists of the nature of the impending intrusion;  
  3. Uniformed officers and official vehicles in sufficient quantity and visibility to show the police power of the community; and  
  4. A predetermination by policy-making administrative officers of the roadblock location, time, and procedures to be employed, pursuant to carefully formulated standards and neutral criteria.

The purpose of these requirements is to remove the discretion of what vehicles to stop from the officers in the field. Otherwise, these practices would be ripe for abuse.
The checkpoint requirements clearly apply to private motor vehicles but what about commercial motor vehicles? Commercial trucking is considered a highly regulated industry in the United States and for good reason. Truck drivers are hauling tons of cargo for long periods of time over considerable distances. One does not have to look far to see the devastation that can be caused by truck drivers not being cautious enough with their vehicles and loads on our highways. Truck driving is certainly a dangerous industry and the government has a considerable interest in ensuring that those that participate in it are doing so as safely as possible.
Because commercial trucking is a highly regulated industry, the government has a substantial interest in ensuring that those participating in the industry are doing so as safe as possible. For this reason, truck drivers are required to comply with sleep and driving time restrictions, load weight checks at weigh stations, log book and load inspection regulations and many other requirements that are designed to ensure the safety of the public on the roadways. So does this mean that law enforcement can stop commercial truck drivers whenever they want, without restriction to ensure compliance with the laws? GRL Law argues, “no.”
If law enforcement complies with the constitutional requirements for a checkpoint or roadblock, they may certainly stop commercial motor vehicles either at set checkpoints or even at temporary checkpoints set up on the side of the road. In fact, law enforcement does not have to comply as stringently with the requirements set out for private motor vehicle checkpoints. See State v. A-1 Disposal, 415 N.W.2d 597 (Iowa 1987). However, at a minimum, these check points may only stop vehicles pursuant to a predetermined, neutral, criteria as opposed to at the discretion of the stopping officers.
Random, roving patrol stops of commercial vehicles, left completely at the discretion of the enforcement officers, do not comply with Iowa law or the constitutional requirements prohibiting unreasonable restraint interference with citizen’s freedom. The Iowa Supreme Court has specifically held that “[p]olice officers on roving patrol or routine patrol, then, must have reasonable cause to believe a vehicle is overweight [or otherwise in violation of law] before stopping it.” State v. A-1 Disposal, 415 N.W.2d 595, 597 (Iowa 1987).
The logic behind these requirements is rather straightforward. We do not want officers picking and choosing who gets stopped for inspections without any sort of suspicion that the vehicle in violation of a particular law or regulation. Otherwise, officers could stop commercial vehicles for improper reasons without any restrictions whatsoever. Nothing would prevent officers from stopping every truck owned or operated by a particular company, a particular ethnicity of driver, or frequenting a particular construction project or co-op. Law enforcement would have a license to harass whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted. This is precisely the type of conduct that the Fourth Amendment was designed to prohibit.
The lawyers at GRL Law understand that our position goes against everything many truck drivers in our state are taught. Indeed, Iowa law enforcement has been conducting random suspicionless commercial motor vehicle stops for decades now. However, as Justice Bradley of the United States Supreme Court recognized as far back as 1886:
"It may be that it is the obnoxious thing in its mildest and least repulsive form; but illegitimate and unconstitutional practices get their first footing in that way, namely: by silent approaches and slight deviations from legal modes of procedure. This can only be obviated by adhering to the rule that constitutional provisions for the security of person and property should be liberally construed. A close and literal construction deprives them of half their efficacy, and leads to gradual depreciation of the right, as it is consisted more in sound than substance. It is the duty of courts to be watchful for the constitutional rights of the citizen, and against any stealthy encroachments thereon."
Boyd v. United States 116 U.S. 616, 635 (1886). As always, we welcome our readers questions and feedback.