Criminal Conspiracies To Violate Civil Rights Are Not, In Fact, Amusing

Some folks in Kalona, Iowa have what they think is a cute idea to boost tourism. Are they having some sort of corn festival? A street fair? The world's largest ball-of-something?

Nope. They're using armed men to stop people with out-of-state plates on the highway, and asking them to come back and stay in Kalona for a day.

The armed men in question are police.

They think it's funny. County Sheriff Jerry Dunbar thinks it is funny. Chamber of Commerce member Larry Moeller thinks it is funny. The local news thinks that it is funny. For God's sake, the Chicago Tribune thinks it is funny:

Thousands of vehicles pass through the county on U.S. Highway 218 each day, and last Thursday chamber member Larry Moeller and Sheriff Jerry Dunbar set out to find a tourist to "arrest."

"We'll go up to the car and ask them if they have about 20 hours to spend with us here in Kalona," Moeller said.

Armed with binoculars and flashing red lights, the pair began looking for an unsuspecting passer-by.

The first car they stopped was allowed to leave because the people inside were on their way to the hospital.

Then, along came Ron and Cheri Cunningham of Sedalia, Mo.

"I was behind a truck that I'd followed for about 15 miles. I wasn't speeding. I didn't know what I could've possibly done," Ron Cunningham said.

Here's the thing: it's not funny. It's not amusing. It sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel. It's contemptible. I don't care if the deputy sheriffs are all sweetness and light and good manners after they pull over people with out-of-state plates. The point is, once they use lights or sirens or any other show of authority to stop a car on the highway, they have committed a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. The Fourth Amendment demands that police have sufficient and specific cause before seizing the occupants of a car by stopping it — for instance, probable cause that the driver has violated the vehicle code. There are a few exceptions for sobriety checkpoints and immigration checkpoints and other stops in which police may stop without a basis particular to a specific car, but those are very narrowly interpreted. By no stretch of the imagination do they extend to a program to stop people with out-of-state plates on the highway to ask them to shop in the town, or to donate to the Policeman's Ball, or to go to the Deputy Sheriff's girlfriend's gig at this awesome new bar.

So when County Sheriff Jerry Dunbar and his deputies, at the incitement of Chamber of Commerce member Larry Moeller, are pulling people over on the highway to promote tourism, they are violating the Fourth Amendment rights of the people in question. It's not even a close call. The people might not mind, of course. The resulting harm to each individual might be slight. But it's a coordinated, knowing violation of the Constitution. That's contemptible. Jerry Dunbar took an oath to uphold the law. He's an oathbreaker.

And, by the way, I betcha some of those people really don't like it. Think about it. You're an out-of-state driver, in a place so much in the middle of nowhere that the next town over is called "Amish," and a cop pulls you over and asks you to come back to town and spend money. Just how safe do you feel saying "no thank you?" Do you think the cop might suddenly find something wrong with your car, some problem with your license or registration? Do you think you might find yourself subject to fines and forfeitures, like travelers through Tenaha, Texas?

Kalona's problem is that apparently nobody in local law enforcement or on the Chamber of Commerce is a grown-up. What might change their minds? Well, perhaps a federal class-action lawsuit for violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. section 1983. I'm sure there is some hungry, enterprising lawyer out there to look into that one. Or perhaps a grand jury subpoena from the United States Attorney for the District of Iowa inquiring into a possible criminal violation of civil rights. Do you think that might shake loose a grown-up in Kalona?

By the way, it was also contemptible when cops in Rancho Cordova, California did it to reward good drivers with $5 Starbucks gift certificates.

Who the hell is supervising these people?

Via Radley Balko.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    The first car they stopped was allowed to leave because the people inside were on their way to the hospital

    Wouldn't you like to be the lawyer for those people if their loved one had died without them their because Barny Fife was acting as a well-armed bureau of tourism?

  2. says

    Those with power tend to downplay any harm caused by their exercising it. I'm not surprised that they honestly don't see anything wrong with strong-arm tactics – they aren't on the receiving end.

    As to your final question, clearly, no one is supervising.

  3. Mike says

    Small towns in Iowa (and elsewhere) scare me. I lived in one. They are mini-police states.

    There was an interesting case involving illegal seizures involving Southwest. As part of a joke, Southwest had police come out to arrest an employee who had just made it through her probationary period. The employee had a nervous breakdown.

    She filed a 1983 suit, and got past summary judgment since motive is irrelevant. Even if the cops meant well (in the Southwest case, it seemed like they did), so what. The standard is for an arrest is an objectively reasonableness belief that probable cause of a crime exists. Still, I felt sort of bad for the cops in the Southwest case.

    These Iowa cops are just trying to extort money. I wonder if there's a dormant commerce clause cause of action in there, too, since out-of-staters are being discriminated against.

  4. Matt says

    Dead right, it's not funny. And it's frightening how many people apparently think it is. What's next, folks?

  5. Rebecca says

    Well I would like to comment on this article. The intersate is its own road. The sheriff was sitting off on the highway watching for people who exited the interstate with out of state plates. When they pulled the people over the first thing that was said is that you are not in any trouble, you did nothing wrong and are free to leave whenever you would like! Also for one they were not asked to spend money. They got a free nights stay, a free breakfast along with supper. They got discounts from shops when they went it. If they CHOSED to go in. Also another point i would like to make is the fact that you are assuming there are no adults and that these people in small town iowa are horrible people. Well i would like to tell you that Jerry Dunbar has done a great job at being our Sheriff. He has cut down the budget and reopened are jail. I know that Jerry Dunbar would not do anything bad to anybody he is a amazing guy and he is a great christian man. I am very offended by this article just because you and everyone else out there doesnt know the real story and you are making innocent people look bad