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Westra v. Iowa Department of Transportation

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 14, 2019


          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Arthur E. Gamble, Judge.

         A motorist appeals a district court ruling denying his petition for judicial review of an agency decision suspending his driver's license for one year. AFFIRMED.

          Matthew T. Lindholm of Gourley, Rehkemper, & Lindholm, P.L.C., West Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Robin G. Formaker, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.


         This case began when a driver tried to reverse course. But it presents the question whether our court should reverse course. Specifically, should we overrule precedent and apply the exclusionary rule to driver's license revocation proceedings when an Iowa statute dictates otherwise?

         In Westendorf v. Iowa Department of Transportation, 400 N.W.2d 553, 557 (Iowa 1987), superseded by statute as recognized by Brownsberger v. Department of Transportation, 460 N.W.2d 449, 450-51 (Iowa 1990), we declined to apply the exclusionary rule so long as the enumerated statutory conditions for license revocation were met. Later, the general assembly enacted a limited exception to Westendorf. See Iowa Code § 321J.13(6) (2017). This requires the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) to rescind revocation of a driver's license if there has been a criminal prosecution for operating while intoxicated (OWI) and the criminal case determined that the peace officer did not have reasonable grounds to believe a violation of the OWI laws had occurred or that the chemical test was otherwise inadmissible or invalid. We affirmed the limited nature of that exception in Manders v. Iowa Department of Transportation, 454 N.W.2d 364, 366-67 (Iowa 1990).

         In the present case, a driver was pulled over by a DOT officer after he stopped on I-80 to make unauthorized use of a median crossover in order to turn around and head in the other direction. It turned out he had an open container in his car and smelled of an alcoholic beverage. After he refused all testing, his license was suspended for one year, but he was never charged with OWI. Adhering to our Westendorf and Manders precedents, the DOT upheld his license suspension. Notably, the driver's only challenge to the stop was that the DOT officer lacked statutory authority; the driver did not contest reasonable suspicion for the stop. The district court also denied relief, leading to this appeal.

         We are now asked, in effect, to expand the legislature's post-Westendorf statutory exception and apply the exclusionary rule to all driver's license revocation proceedings if there was any problem with the stop. For the reasons discussed herein, we decline to do so and instead adhere to the legislative boundaries of the exception when the only legal flaw in the stop was the officer's lack of statutory authority. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the district court upholding the license revocation in this case.

         I. Facts and Procedural History.

         On May 9, 2017, at approximately 12:26 a.m., Officer Austin Wilson of the DOT was patrolling westbound on I-80, a four-lane divided interstate highway, in Jasper County. At a location where there was a median crossover marked for use by authorized vehicles only, Officer Wilson observed an eastbound vehicle coming to a stop. It appeared the driver was preparing to use the crossover, turn around, and head westbound. Officer Wilson took the crossover himself and when the driver of the eastbound vehicle decided to keep going eastbound on I-80, Officer Wilson pulled it over using his overhead lights.

         The driver of the vehicle, Alex Westra, admitted he had been about to make a turnaround using the median crossing and knew it was a bad idea. Officer Wilson noticed that Westra had bloodshot and watery eyes and saw an open container of Four Loko (an alcoholic beverage) within arm's reach. Westra initially denied knowing there was a beverage can in his vehicle. He refused to hand over the beverage can and refused to step out of his vehicle.

          When a backup officer arrived, Officer Wilson removed Westra from his vehicle. Officer Wilson could smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from Westra's person. In addition, on inspection, the can of Four Loko had only one-quarter of its contents remaining.

         Westra declined to undergo any preliminary testing for intoxication. Officer Wilson escorted Westra to the Jasper County jail where Westra was read the implied consent advisory and made two phone calls. Westra then refused to take the Datamaster chemical test.

         Westra was never charged with OWI but was charged with two traffic violations-stopping on a travelled portion of I-80 in violation of Iowa Code section 321.354 and driving with an open container of an alcoholic beverage in violation of section 321.284. Westra filed a motion to suppress in the traffic case, contending that Officer Wilson of the DOT lacked statutory authority to stop him on May 9 on I-80. See Rilea v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 919 N.W.2d 380, 383 (Iowa 2018). The motion was overruled, and Westra was found guilty and sentenced to pay fines of $100 and $200 respectively for the two violations. Westra appealed to the district court, however, which found that the DOT stop was invalid and dismissed the two citations.

         Meanwhile, the DOT notified Westra that his driver's license was being revoked for one year under Iowa Code section 321J.9. Westra requested an administrative hearing, and on July 11 he received a telephonic hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The issue at the hearing was whether DOT Officer Wilson had statutory authority to stop Westra's vehicle. The ALJ entered a decision on August 15 finding that he did. The ALJ reasoned that "Officer Wilson was operating within his authority as a designated peace officer under [section] 321J.8(3)" relating to enforcement of OWI laws. As the ALJ explained,

Although he could not have been assured that the driver of the pickup he observed that night was impaired by alcohol or other substances, he did see it was being operated in an erratic or illegal manner which can be a part of a finding of reasonable grounds for a possible violation of section 321J.2 as set out above. It is reasonable to find the Appellant's actions of coming to a stop on a traveled portion of a two-lane interstate highway and doing so in a proximity to a median cross-over lane he could not legally use were valid reasons for Officer Wilson [to] perform a traffic stop at that time.

         Westra appealed this decision to the director of the DOT. On September 21, the director agreed with the ALJ that Officer Wilson had statutory authority to enforce the OWI laws as to Westra. He also found that Westra's argument for suppression of his refusal to take the chemical test was immaterial because the exclusionary rule did not apply to this driver's license revocation proceeding.

         Westra petitioned for judicial review in the Polk County District Court. Following a hearing, the district court issued a ruling on May 17, 2018. The district court found that "Officer Wilson did not have statutory authority to stop Westra." However, it declined to hold under article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution that the exclusionary rule applied to Westra's license revocation proceeding. It also rejected Westra's alternative argument that article I, section 9 of the Iowa Constitution (the Due Process Clause) required exclusion of Westra's refusal to take the Datamaster chemical test. Westra appealed and we retained the appeal.

         II. Standard of Review.

         Factual findings of the DOT are reviewed for substantial evidence unless the underlying claim is a constitutional one, in which case review of facts is de novo. See Iowa Code § 17A.19(10)(f). Both parties agree that we do not defer to the DOT's interpretations of Iowa Code section 321J.13(6) or, of course, to the DOT's views on the Iowa Constitution. See id. § 17A.19(10)(c); Bearinger v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 844 N.W.2d 104, 106 (Iowa 2014).

         III. Legal Analysis.

         A. Whether Officer Wilson Had Authority to Stop Westra.

         The first question is whether Officer Wilson had statutory authority to stop Westra on I-80 on May 9, 2017. Westra's claim goes away if Officer Wilson had such authority. In Rilea, we held that until new legislation became effective on May 11, DOT officers lacked authority to issue traffic citations unrelated to operating authority, registration, size, weight, or load. 919 N.W.2d at 383. However, we also clarified that Iowa Code chapter 321J provided a separate font of authority, and "an IDOT [motor vehicle enforcement] officer, if properly trained, can enforce chapter 321J." Id. at 392. In doing so, we relied on Iowa Code section 321J.1(8)(e), which states that a "peace officer" for purposes of chapter 321J includes "[a]ny other law enforcement officer who has satisfactorily completed an approved course relating to motor vehicle operators under the influence of alcoholic beverages." Id.

         Yet we decided another case the same day. See State v. Werner, 919 N.W.2d 375 (Iowa 2018). Werner involved a motorist who had been stopped by a DOT officer for speeding and who was only later determined to have been driving under revocation in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.21. Id. at 376. Under these circumstances, we concluded the State could not rely on the DOT officer's chapter 321J enforcement authority. Id. at 380. We noted, "Whatever merit this argument may have in other contexts, there is no indication Officer Glade knew or suspected Werner's driver's license had been revoked for operating while intoxicated when he made the August 18 stop." Id.

         We believe the quoted language from Werner controls here. On this record, we are not persuaded that Officer Wilson "knew or suspected" Westra was driving under the influence when he stopped his vehicle. Officer Wilson's testimony contains no inkling of this.

         The DOT found that Officer Wilson could rely on his enforcement authority in chapter 321J based on the following reasoning: "[H]e did see [the vehicle] was being operated in an erratic or illegal matter which can be a part of a finding of reasonable grounds for a possible violation of section 321J.2 as set out above." If this were a finding that Officer Wilson was actually engaged in OWI enforcement when he stopped Westra, it might carry the day. However, this was merely a finding that the driving behavior Officer Wilson observed could have helped provide the basis for a reasonable suspicion finding. Under Werner, Officer Wilson's stop was invalid.

         B. Whether Article I, Section 8 Required Suppression of Westra's Refusal to Take the Chemical Test.

         Because we agree with the district court that Officer Wilson lacked statutory authority to stop Westra on I-80, we must consider whether the Iowa Constitution required suppression of Westra's refusal to take the chemical test and, thus, would require us to unwind his license revocation. To do so, we will first review the relevant statutes and caselaw relating to license revocation hearings. Then we will address the heart of Westra's argument.

         1. License revocations in Iowa and the evidence that can be considered. As of 1985, Iowa law provided that a license revocation hearing

shall be limited to the issues of whether a peace officer had reasonable grounds to believe that the person was operating a motor vehicle in violation of section 321.281 [now section 321J.2] and either of the following:
a. Whether the person refused to submit to the test or tests.
b. Whether a test was administered and the test results indicated an alcohol concentration [above the legal limit].

Iowa Code § 321B.26(a)-(b) (1985).

         In Westendorf, a case decided under this law, we held that the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule did not apply to driver's license revocation proceedings. 400 N.W.2d at 557. The driver sought to challenge his license revocation on the ground that the police officer had lacked probable cause to stop his vehicle. Id. at 554. The district court agreed and overturned the revocation. Id. We, however, reversed and reinstated the revocation. Id. at 557.

         We pointed out that "the statutory conditions for revocation by the department were clearly satisfied." Id. at 555. We acknowledged,

Had the evidence demonstrated that any one of the listed statutory conditions was not present-for example that the officer did not have "reasonable grounds to believe Westendorf had been operating the motor vehicle in violation of section 321.281" the department would not have been warranted in revoking Westendorf's driver's license.

Id. Yet in the absence of such a statutory ground for excluding the evidence, we held that the driver could not challenge his license revocation under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 556-57. We explained,

The benefit of using reliable information of intoxication in license revocation proceedings, even when that evidence is inadmissible in criminal proceedings, outweighs the possible benefit of applying the exclusionary rule to deter unlawful conduct. Consequently, the exclusionary rule formulated under the fourth and fourteenth amendments was inapplicable in this license revocation proceeding.

Id. at 557.

         The following year, the general assembly amended the law to provide drivers with certain additional grounds for challenging license revocations. See 1988 Iowa Acts ch. 1214, ยง 2 (codified at Iowa Code ...

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