Vol. 8 #4 February 26, 2017
The Silence Was Deafening
Most drivers get that sick feeling in the pit of their stomach when flashing red lights appear in the rearview mirror.
“Was I speeding?”
“Is one of my lights out?”
“Did I blow a stop sign?”
But the fear is moderate, anticipating the possibility of a citation and fine, hoping for a warning ticket.
A select group of drivers experience gut-wrenching fear when seeing those same flashing lights, for the same possible moving violations. But the fear is not about getting a ticket and how to pay for it. No, the questions they have racing through their mind as the adrenaline begins to rise include:
“Will I survive?”
“Will I see my family again?”
Sadly, these are the same thoughts and fears that many peace officers experience when specific drivers, prejudged to be a threat based on physical appearance, are pulled over for what should be a simple, routine traffic stop. These aren’t baseless fears for either group, there have been deaths.
This shouldn’t be happening, but it is happening around the country and ignoring it or hoping it will somehow magically go away isn’t realistic and it’s extremely dangerous.
This is why warning flags are flying over the proposed distracted driving legislation that is on the move this session. We have historically registered against previous efforts. Our concern is the unforeseen consequences of the bill’s enactment with the increase in pretextual stops. (A pretextual traffic stop involves a police officer stopping a driver for a traffic violation, minor or otherwise, to allow the officer to then investigate a separate and unrelated, suspected criminal offense.) Our anxiety has only increased by the disturbing behavior that occurred during the two subcommittees last week – silence.
Senate Study Bill 1079 passed out of subcommittee on February 21, 2017 with subcommittee members, Senator Michael Breitbach (R-Strawberry Point), chair, Senator Tod Bowman (D-Maquoketa) and Senator Waylon Brown (R-St. Ansgar). Although this was an Iowa Department of Public Safety bill, the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association lobbyist was sitting at the table with the subcommittee members ready to explain the proposed bill. Lobbyists representing corporate interests had either declared in opposition to the bill or declared undecided, but brought concerns to the meeting requesting amendments. Justice Reform Consortium declared as undecided because we recognize that distracted driving has become a public safety issue, but still we fear the consequence of racial profiling and pretextual stops. The ACLU shares the same concern based on a study that they have conducted.
Betty Andrews, President of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP presented an amendment to offer a solution, requiring data collection by officers when making traffic stops. There were no questions from subcommittee members or anyone else in the room. Senator Bowman requested an amendment to include Global Positioning System (GPS) usage as a reason to stop and cite, since he feared this was also dangerously distracting to drivers.
In other action, House Study Bill 139 passed out of subcommittee on February 23, 2017 with subcommittee members, Representative Gary Worthan (R-Storm Lake), chair, Representative Robert Bacon (R-Slater), and Rep. John Forbes (D-Urbandale). The Sheriffs and Deputies sat at the table during this presentation and stated how they had reached out to the corporate lobbyists and had amendments to address their concerns raised during the Senate subcommittee (SSB 1079) meeting. These lobbyists now will change their declarations supporting the bill, since their concerns were respected. But sheriffs and deputies hadn’t reached out to the lobbies concerned about the health and well-being of Iowans. Russ Lovell, representing the NAACP, gave an eloquent and heartfelt presentation on the need for the proposed amendment that would gather data during these proposed traffic stops. Once again there were no questions or comments after his presentation.
The saddest part of this situation is that minorities and law enforcement share the same thoughts, the same fears, and should be working together to ease the strained racial relationship. We need more than silence.
JRC Opposes Sentencing Reform?
You would think that a bill promising true sentencing would be supported by Justice Reform Consortium. But that’s not what we did. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) brought a bill before the Iowa House, House File 377 (by Rep. Zach Nunn (R) of Bondurant). We opposed it.
The first section of the bill reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from the current 1:10 ratio down to a 1:2 ratio. We opposed the bill because we object to the sentencing scheme that fails to recognize that these two substances are pharmacologically identical.
Iowa was one of a few states that adopted the federal ratio of 100:1 back in the last century. It wasn’t until 2003 that Iowa legislators reduced the ratio from 100:1 to 10:1. It is possible that the outlandish ratio is one of the causes of Iowa’s disproportionate imprisonment of African-Americans. Although it is believed that the percentage of drug users across ethnic and cultural lines is basically equal, African-Americans and Latinos are incarcerated at higher rates than their white counterparts, especially in Iowa.
So, to begin, a crack dealer needs cocaine. The dealer heats the cocaine with baking soda and recovers the chemical reaction that rises to the top. That solid piece of what remains is the crack. “According to the DEA and Sentencing Commission, one gram of cocaine powder converts/reduces to 0.89 gram cocaine base.” http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/2010-24648.htm. In other words, beginning with 100 grams of cocaine powder (about the weight of a half roll of quarters, the dealer can produce approximately 89 grams of crack (take a couple of quarters out of that ½ roll). Before the chemical transformation, the penalty for possessing those 100 grams of cocaine in Iowa would be a class “C” felony, ten years in prison. After the transformation, the possession of the 89 grams of crack in Iowa is a Super class “B” felony, 50 years in prison. “This disparity means that a major supplier of powder cocaine may receive a shorter sentence than a low-level dealer who buys powder from the supplier but then converts it to crack.” Kimbrough v. US, 128 S.Ct. 558, 566 (2007).
The disparity in sentencing is realized only with crack/powder cocaine. There has never been a disparity between methamphetamine and crystal ice. “Crystalline methamphetamine (ice) is a highly-purified form of methamphetamine with a crystal-like appearance. The only difference between ice and the other methamphetamines, speed and base, is that ice undergoes additional refinement to remove impurities.” http://druginfo.sl.nsw.gov.au/drugs/a-to-z-of-drugs/ice-speed-other-methamphetamines We’re not seeking a sentencing structure between meth and ice, only pointing out the inane rationale.
Crack cocaine and powder cocaine is the same thing. JRC believes that the ratio in sentencing thresholds should be the logical 1:1. The Iowa County Attorneys Association suggested the ratio be 5:1. There is no logical or scientific explanation for their suggestion. It’s almost as if they sought insight from the Magic Crystal Ball (no pun intended), or “pick a card, any card” mentality, but like most suggestions on sentencing, the ICAA pulled the numbers from “thin air”.
Our initial opposition to the bill was more symbolic based upon the crack/powder section of the bill. We had a minor concern with an internal phrase. However, an amendment is being proposed to the bill that was originally HF 358 (by Zach Nunn -R, Bondurant), a bill that would, in Nunn’s words, “give more protection to peace officers”. We mentioned that we would now be locked into our opposition because of the amendment. The bill (amendment) provides that a person who ‘attempts’ to murder a peace officer must serve 100% of the sentence, shall be denied parole, work release or any other early release. JRC believes that the release of an offender without parole or other supervised release is dangerous to society. Furthermore, it is difficult to comprehend any law actually “protecting” anyone. Irrational people do not react rationally to reactionary law.
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Two bills proposing to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa have been introduced in the Iowa Senate
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