7/6/2018Iowa Supremes Mock SCOTUS On Warrantless Auto Searches
Iowa Supreme Court justices slam the US Supreme Court decisions designed to make it convenient for police to search cars without a warrant.
State supreme courts do not always agree with the constitutional pronouncements of the US Supreme Court. State courts are free to cite more stringent provisions of their state constitutions if they wish to provide greater protections for residents. The Iowa Supreme Court did just that last week when it shot down the federal court's doctrine allowing police to search any car at will without a warrant merely by finding a reason to tow it away so an "inventory" search can be made.
"We accept the invitation 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," Justice Brent R. Appel wrote. "In doing so, we encourage stability and finality in law by decoupling Iowa law from the winding and often surprising decisions of the United States Supreme Court."
The Iowa court took up the issue in the context of Bion Blake Ingram, who was pulled over on October 30, 2015, on Highway 14 in Newton because his license plate bulb had burned out. Jasper County Deputy John Burdt decided to impound Ingram's car after noticing that the registration had expired. During the inventory search, deputies found a small amount of methamphetamine for which Ingram was charged with possession.
Ingram insisted that the inventory was a pretext to conduct a search without having to articulate to a neutral judge a reason to suspect the vehicle was involved in a crime, as the Fourth Amendment requires. Article 1 Section 8 of Iowa's constitution contains an identically worded provision that the state court interprets far more strictly. The Iowa justices said they were troubled by a series of US Supreme Court decisions watering down the Fourth Amendment's protections.
"The end result of Whren, Atwater, and Bertine is law enforcement has virtually unlimited discretion to stop arbitrarily whomever they choose, arrest the driver for a minor offense that might not even be subject to jail penalties, and then obtain a broad inventory search of the vehicle -- all without a warrant," Justice Appel wrote. "When considered in context, the inventory search does not emerge as something for the benefit of the owner or driver, but instead is a powerful unregulated tool in crime control."
The federal court has focused on "reasonableness" instead of the warrant requirement in automobile searches, allowing local police agencies to establish their own written or unwritten policies for such searches.
"This empowerment of local law enforcement to determine the substance of Fourth Amendment protections in the context of warrantless inventory searches and seizures of automobiles 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," Justice Appel noted.
The Iowa high court majority proceeded argument-by-argument, dissecting the rationale given by their counterparts on the federal bench. The justices barely concealed their contempt for the argument that inventory searches protect vehicle owners.
"If the warrantless inventory search is really for the benefit of the owner or driver, law enforcement should not object to allowing an owner the option to opt out of the state's beneficence," Justice Brent R. Appel wrote.
The Iowa court suppressed the evidence that had been used to convict Ingram.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 250k PDF file at the source link below.