Interstate Traffic Stops

Interstate or Highway Drug Interdiction has become common place on Interstates 80 and 35 in Iowa. What is interstate drug interdiction? Interstate drug interdiction is loosely defined as the act of intercepting individuals transporting illegal drugs or money intended to facilitate a drug transaction. The Iowa State Patrol, tasked with the job of patrolling Iowa’s vast highways and interstate roads, has developed two teams of State Troopers whose sole job is to interdict individuals transporting drugs and money. They often make interdiction stops in Cass, Adair, Dallas, Poweshiek, Iowa, Johnson, Jasper and Polk counties. The Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office located in Council Bluffs, has an officer, Brian Miller, dedicated to interstate drug interdiction.  (We were recently interviewed for an article in the Des Moines Register regarding this subject.  Click here to read the article)

These cops profile and target out-of-state vehicles. If you are from the east coast, west coast, Colorado, the desert southwest or basically anywhere in the country other than Iowa, you are a target. Police theorize that drugs travel eastbound because drugs like meth, marijuana and heroin originate in the southwest in states like California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.  Additionally, several western states like Colorado and Oregon have legalized Marijuana. Money then travels westbound to purchase the drugs. Thus, the cops on the Drug Interdiction Teams conduct traffic stops almost exclusively on motorists from outside of Iowa. In fact, in one case we obtained and analyzed citation data from a member of the Iowa State Patrol’s Drug Interdiction Team East and found that over a four year period he wrote 92% of his tickets to non-Iowa plated vehicles.

So, here is how a drug interdiction investigation during an interstate drug traffic stop works.  A State Trooper sitting in the median or atop an overpass identifies a car he deems suspicious. Then the cop pulls out to follow the car. Often the officer drives up next to the car to see whether the driver looks over. Next, the Trooper finds a reason, usually a minor traffic offense like speeding or window tint, to stop the car.

After stopping the car, the officer informs the driver that he is only issuing a warning ticket and asks the driver to come sit in the patrol. During this time the cop makes important observations of the exterior and interior of the vehicle. After returning to the patrol car, the Trooper conducts a "motorist interview". This interview consists of many questions about the driver’s travel plans, background, family, work history, etc. If there are passengers the officer will return to the stopped vehicle and speak with them to see if their stories match the driver’s. Eventually, the officer will give the driver the warning and tell him to have a nice day.

As the driver exits the patrol car so does the Trooper. The Trooper asks the driver’s permission to ask a few additional questions. These questions are whether drugs, weapons or large sums of cash can be found in the vehicle. After the driver indicates no drugs, weapons or money are in the vehicle the officer asks if he can run a drug dog around the car. If the driver says no, the officer detains the occupants and calls for a dog. The dog arrives minutes later and sniffs the vehicle.  A positive sniff results in a full scale search of the vehicle.  If drugs or cash are found, the car is impounded and brought to a DOT shed. The Iowa Department of Narcotics Enforcement is called and the driver (and passengers) is interrogated. Often, if cash is found the police attempt to have the driver (and passengers) sign a waiver form disclaiming any interest in the money so that it can be forfeited to the state or federal government.

While not every criminal and/or seized property case stemming from these drug interdiction traffic stops is defendable, many are quite defendable. Knowing what issues to look for and how to properly litigate these cases is key to successfully defending them. We have been on the forefront of successfully litigating these cases. One such example is the case of State v. Harahan.  In Hanrahan we lost at the district court level on our motion to suppress evidence but won in the Iowa Court of Appeals.  As a result, all criminal charges were dropped and over $50,000.00 was returned.  If you have been the victim of an interstate drug interdiction traffic stop call us immediately.  Let us put our experience to work for you.