Iowa Supreme Court continues to debate meaning of the 4th Amendment and the breadth of Iowa’s Search-and-Seizure Clause

By: Rox Laird on May 4th, 2016

The Iowa Supreme Court has throughout its history often taken a more aggressive stance on civil liberties than the U.S. Supreme Court. That tradition stretches from the first published decision of the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court regarding slavery in 1839 to its ruling recognizing same-sex marriage in 2009.

At least one Iowa justice thinks his colleagues missed an opportunity to follow that tradition in a case handed down last week.

The court in a 4-3 decision (Iowa v. Marvis Latrell Jackson) ruled that the Iowa City police illegally searched a robbery suspect’s backpack.

Four justices in the majority held that while police had legal authority to search the apartment where Jackson was staying without his consent, they did not have consent to search a backpack belonging to him found in the apartment. Three justices in dissent said the search was proper.

Justice Brent Appel, in a separate opinion, offered yet another perspective: While he agreed that the backpack search was improper, Appel said he would have based that conclusion on the Iowa Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution.

That would have allowed the Iowa court to take a stronger pro-defendant view of search-and-seizure protections than the U.S. Supreme Court has taken, which Appel said has “significantly and unworkably undermined” its earlier decisions protecting criminal suspects from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment.

In the Iowa City case, the Iowa court relied on a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said searches may be constitutional if police have the consent of someone other than the suspect, such as an apartment tenant who has “apparent authority” to authorize a search of the premises.

Such searches could be valid even if the police wrongly assume a co-tenant could authorize the search, the U.S. Supreme Court held.

The question is whether the Iowa City police “reasonably” relied on the “apparent authority” of a third party to search a backpack found in the apartment.

The majority said a co-tenant could consent to a search of the apartment, but not the backpack, which they could reasonably have presumed belonged to Jackson, who did not consent to the search. The dissent said it would not have been obvious to officers that the backpack was Jackson’s and they reasonably assumed it was covered by the consent to search the apartment.

Appel would have eliminated the factual dispute altogether. He would do that by citing the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Fourth Amendment and establishing an Iowa standard for searches that would not allow a third party to consent to a search of another person’s property. In this case, that means only Jackson could have authorized the search of his backpack.

None of the other justices in the Iowa City case joined Appel’s separate opinion. Justice David Wiggins, writing for the majority, dismissed Jackson’s separate claim based on the Iowa Constitution because the court held the search violated the U.S. Constitution, so no further analysis of the Iowa Constitution was warranted.

Still, the Court left the door open to doing that in a future case with a different set of facts where asserting the Iowa Constitution would lead to a different result. If so, there is at least one vote on the court for doing that.

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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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