Iowa Supreme Court, citing the Iowa Constitution, limits warrantless searches of containers in impounded vehicles

By: Rox Laird on July 17th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court added another category of police searches where it invoked the Iowa Constitution to extend broader protection than the U.S. Supreme Court has granted under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

For drivers whose vehicles are impounded and searched by law enforcement, the ruling in State v. Ingram handed down June 29 means closed containers may not be opened as part of an inventory of the contents of the vehicle without a warrant or consent. For law-enforcement authorities, it means jumping through more hoops before searching and inventorying contents of impounded vehicles.

Bion Ingram was stopped by a police officer in Newton for a traffic violation and the borrowed car he was driving was impounded because the plates and registration sticker did not match. As part of the inventory search, officers opened a small cloth bag on the floor and found a glass pipe containing methamphetamine.

The seven-member Court unanimously agreed that the search was unconstitutional, but the justices split 4-3 on whether to apply the U.S. or the Iowa Constitution.

The majority cited Article I Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution in an opinion written by Justice Brent Appel joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht.

Justice Edward Mansfield filed a special concurring opinion, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager, which argued that opening and searching the bag violated the Fourth Amendment because the Newton police did not follow a “standardized local policy” in searching the bag, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court. Mansfield said there was no reason to go beyond that and decide this case based on the Iowa Constitution.

Chief Justice Cady, in a separate concurrence, pointed out that inventory searches give law enforcement officers “free rein to conduct a warrantless investigatory search and to seize incriminating property, despite the doctrine’s genesis as a means of protecting private property, guarding against false theft claims, and protecting officers from potential harm.”

Article I Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution’s says “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable seizures and searches shall not be violated,” which is nearly identical to the wording of the federal Fourth Amendment.

But the Iowa Supreme Court has increasingly parted company with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment holdings where the Iowa justices believe Fourth Amendment protections have been eroded. That is especially true, Appel wrote, where the federal court has moved away from requiring a warrant and toward a “reasonableness” standard.

Appel traced the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolution on inventory searches since 1973 where the Court has found inventory searches to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Court rejected a case-by-case analysis and instead requires that law-enforcement authorities have a local policy for inventory searches. Thus, the search of a backpack found in a vehicle was upheld because police in that case had such a policy, while in a subsequent ruling the search of a suitcase in the trunk of a car was rejected because police lacked a policy.

Appel wrote that empowering local law enforcement to determine the extent of Fourth Amendment protections in inventory searches is “rich with irony, as the Fourth Amendment was explicitly designed as a bulwark to restrain law enforcement in the context of searches and seizures.”

The Iowa Supreme Court, he said, took the opportunity in this case to “stake out higher constitutional ground” and “to restore the balance between citizens and law enforcement by adopting a tighter legal framework for warrantless inventory searches and seizures of automobiles under Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution than provided under the recent precedents of the United States Supreme Court.”

Appel said the Iowa Supreme Court’s holding does not mean warrantless impoundments are never appropriate, but he suggested that police explore alternatives when the goal is not investigative but to protect property, such as allowing the vehicle to be parked and locked by the driver or calling a friend to pick up the vehicle. “Impoundment of a vehicle should be permitted only if these options have been adequately explored.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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