Drug War

Iowa Supreme Court Makes Legalized Theft Harder by Rejecting an 'Unreasonably Extended' Traffic Stop

The common practice of pretextual stops aimed at finding seizable money takes a hit.


Iowa State Patrol

Last April, in Rodriguez v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court said police may not extend a traffic stop for the purpose of walking a drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle unless they reasonably suspect the driver is carrying contraband. Last Friday the Iowa Supreme Court cited Rodriguez in a decision that limits cops' ability to stop people and take their property while investigating drug trafficking under the guise of enforcing traffic laws.

On the morning of June 13, 2012, Iowa State Trooper Eric Vander Weil pulled over a westbound silver Toyota with California plates, ostensibly because part of one taillight was not working and because the car was following too closely behind a tractor-trailer. Those alleged violations were merely a pretext for catching drug smugglers. Or as Vander Weil later put it, traffic law enforcement "was really just the avenue through which I could conduct a criminal interdiction investigation."

Vander Weil said his suspicions had been aroused by the car's out-of-state plates and by the fact that the driver, John Saccento, "looked over at him, then looked away and didn't look back at him again." Meanwhile, Saccento slowed down and gripped the steering wheel "at the ten and two positions." In other words, he exhibited exactly the sort of conspicuously law-abiding behavior you would expect of a drug trafficker trying to avoid unwanted police attention—or of any other driver who notices a nearby patrol car.

After Vander Weil pulled Saccento over, officially to write him warnings for the two minor traffic offenses that were the legal justification for the stop, he noticed some other details that struck him as suspicious: The car had a lived-in look, with food, trash, and a sleeping bag visible in the backseat, and there was "a strong odor of air freshener." Questioning Saccento and his passenger, Robert Pardee, about the nature of their trip, Vander Weil thought their story—that Saccento was moving from California back to his native state of New Jersey in several cross-country drives—seemed fishy, as such an approach would not be "cost-effective."

That is pretty much all the evidence that Vander Weil initially had, and the Iowa Supreme Court concluded it was not enough for the reasonable suspicion he needed to detain Saccento and Pardee past the 10 minutes or so that would have been necessary to write the warnings and check for outstanding warrants. Vander Weil ultimately detained them for 25 minutes before another trooper arrived with a drug-detecting dog, alternately going through the motions of an ordinary traffic stop and asking them probing questions aimed at uncovering drug law violations. The dog alerted to the car, which led to a search that "revealed small amounts of marijuana in the center console, in the backseat, and in the trunk," plus a computer bag containing $33,100 in cash, which police seized along with the pot.

Pardee, who said the money was his, challenged the seizure. Among other things, he argued that Vander Weil had violated the Fourth Amendment rule laid out in Rodriguez by unreasonably prolonging the traffic stop. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed that "the trooper prolonged the stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment beyond what was necessary to address the observed traffic violations."

It looks like Vander Weil was right to suspect that Pardee's money had something to do with drugs. Seven months after the the Iowa traffic stop, Pardee was arrested in Nebraska and admitted to police there that the $33,100, which he had told the Iowa authorities "represented proceeds from the sale of one or two pickups," actually "represented proceeds from the sale of marijuana in New York." But the same techniques that Vander Weil used to take Pardee's marijuana money can also be used to take money from legitimate sources. Less than a year after Vander Weill pulled over Saccento, for example, another Iowa trooper took $100,000 from two poker players who, like Saccento, were driving west on Interstate 80, returning to California from a tournament in Joliet, Illinois.

That stop followed the same pattern, with a minor traffic violation serving as a pretext for interrogation and a canine inspection. The dog supposedly alerted to the poker players' car, even though it contained no drugs. In light of Rodriguez as applied in Pardee's case, it seems clear that the prolonged stop, the ensuing search, and the resulting seizure were unconstitutional. In fact, any pretextual traffic stop that involves "blending" traffic enforcement with drug investigation—a common practice that tends to make the detention longer than it would otherwise be—could now be open to challenge in Iowa.

The Iowa State Patrol downplayed the impact of last week's ruling. "This decision is based on the specific facts in the case, and the case makes it clear that every fact scenario is different," a spokesman said. "It does not 'dismantle' anything. It modifies the law—as most cases do—and we will continue to do our work based on the guidance provided by the courts."

Last August I noted a Nevada forfeiture case in which a federal judge rejected an end run around Rodriguez that involved successive traffic stops by two different cops.

[Thanks to Mark Lambert for the tip.]

NEXT: Asian Girl Band Detained at LAX Because Officials Think They Must Be Sex Workers

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. gripped the steering wheel “at the ten and two positions.”

    Drug traffickers can’t hide behind obsolete notions of driving safety.

    1. I liked the part about the officer’s suspicions being triggered by the lived-in look of the vehicle. A good cop knows a spotless car is even more suspicious than a messy car since you’re obviously dealing with a drug smuggler who knows not to have a messy car. But not as suspicious as a little bit messy car, that’s a sure sign of a drug smuggler who knows both a too-messy and a too-clean car are suspicious.

      Just like driving fast is a sure sign of a drug smuggler in a hurry to get rid of the drugs, driving slowly is a sure sign of a drug smuggler trying to avoid the suspicion triggered by fast driving, and driving the speed limit is a sure sign of a drug smuggler trying to avoid the suspicion triggered by both fast and slow driving.

      1. It’s as if the cops don’t get (or won’t acknowledge) that no one wants to get stopped and that everyone changes their behavior when they see a cop while driving.

  2. All this just means people who can afford lawyers have a better chance of getting their stuff back. Poor people are still screwed. It certainly doesn’t mean that the cops will act any differently.

  3. In the dying days of the drug war, much like the dying days of WWII, agents of that state get desperate and become fanatical zealots. States need to take these laws a step farther and allow for those “detained” to be able to pursue civil damages for ‘wrongful imprisonment’. There also needs to be some mechanism that hold officers financially responsible for their mistakes. If I as a citizen have to pay a ticket, then there should be some sort of commensurate pay for officers when they break the law.

    1. In the dying days of the drug war

      Uhhh. I’m hopeful that weed will be legal everywhere in my lifetime. But the drug war sure isn’t about to die.

  4. Next-up on the Iowa Supreme Court docket – end Frisbee Golf Profiling:


  5. we will continue to do our work based on the guidance provided by the courts

    The courts build taller walls, that guides us to to build taller ladders.

    As far as finding the money in a computer bag – the cops were free to search the computer (and the cellphones of their victims) because the Fourth doesn’t cover electronic devices, traveling in public means no reasonable expectation of privacy, and searches made pursuant to an arrest for officer safety reasons are fine and dandy, right?

  6. Would it be safe to assume a large chunk of that $33,100 would be spent on attorney fees in any case that went all the way to the state’s supreme court?

    1. Lawyers always win.

  7. [these] techniques … can also be used to take money from legitimate sources

    What the fuck? Money from non-violent commerce in marijuana is from a legitimate source. It just happens to be disfavored at the moment by the regime.

  8. Havent cases like this been heard before? I thought the cops were already prohibited…..aw shit. Fuck it.

    Did anyone else see that steaming heap that Chapman deposited this morning? i went on quite the rant. It really pissed me off.

    1. That was quite a rant. I haven’t seen such Republican cock service since I was at a DC bathhouse. You are literally the only person on earth who likes Ted Cruz. Yet you’re too fucking stupid to realize that he’s not actually stupid enough to actually disbelieve in science as he claims to, he’s just a sociopath who doesn’t give a fuck about telling the truth if it gets in the way of his ambition. I can hardly think of anything more pathetic on this earth than letting idiotic American political tribalism get in the way of believing in scientific reality. And to be so passionate about it. Just sad.

  9. I read your post, its really interesting one. A decent cop knows a spotless auto is significantly a bigger number of suspicious than a chaotic auto since you’re clearly managing a medication bootlegger who knows not to have a muddled auto. Homepage of this website will give you traveling information.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.