Search ends at personal belongings in a targeted-warrant case, the Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on January 11th, 2018

Danielle Brown was one of five people in the bedroom of a house when a Des Moines police SWAT team swarmed in to execute a warrant naming a male occupant of the house to be searched for drugs and weapons. Brown was not named in the warrant but police searched her purse and found a small amount of marijuana inside.

She was subsequently convicted of possession of marijuana.

The Iowa Supreme Court Jan. 5 reversed a ruling of the Polk County District Court admitting evidence from the search of Brown’s purse, however, saying it violated the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In an opinion written by Justice Brent Appel joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht, the Court ruled that a person not named in a search warrant has an expectation of privacy for personal effects – such as a purse – that they effectively have in their possession.

Justice Thomas Waterman disagreed with the majority in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager that argued for a clear rule giving police officers flexibility in executing search warrants in such situations.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police with a valid search warrant may search entire premises, including containers. But they may not search a person who is not named in the warrant who happens to be present during the search. Federal and states courts are divided, however, on the question of whether a visitor’s personal effects, such as a purse, may be searched.

Courts have used several tests to assess the legality of searches of visitors’ personal belongings, including whether the person has actual possession, say by wearing a coat or holding a briefcase or clutching a purse.

The Iowa Supreme Court majority rejected such a strict approach in this situation, however.

“A holding of this court that a visitor loses all reasonable expectations of privacy when visiting a premises by hanging a coat on a rack or placing a purse on a chair or on the floor, simply does not comport with reality,” Appel wrote. “A visitor who placed her purse on a sofa would be shocked to learn that her host, let alone government agents, was free to rummage around the purse looking for interesting or entertaining items while the visitor was in the other room.”

When Des Moines police were conducting the search, Brown was kneeling with her arms handcuffed behind her back, and her purse was on the floor nearby.

The majority said the legal theory of “constructive possession” should be applied in this case, which means that even though Brown was not holding the purse in her hands she was in “constructive, if not actual possession of the purse.” Thus, it was off limits to the police.

Writing for the three justices in dissent, however, Waterman said there were good reasons why Brown should have been covered by the search warrant.

When Des Moines police entered the bedroom at 5:45 a.m. Brown was smoking methamphetamine, Waterman pointed out, and she was “participating in an illegal activity directly related to the sale of methamphetamine, which was the reason for searching the house.”

Other courts, he said, rely on visitors’ perceived connection to the activity targeted by a warrant to uphold a search of the visitors’ personal effects.

He said the Iowa Supreme Court has traditionally preferred bright-line rules when police officers have to make quick decisions in balancing public safety and individual rights. “Such clarity and ease of application is especially important during chaotic police raids on a drug den,” he said.

In short, Waterman wrote: “In my view, the search of Brown’s purse was constitutional.”

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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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