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Appeals Court Okays Drinking In Cars On Private Property

Have you been arrested, cited, ticketed, detained, or convicted for an open container violation? Was an open container violation the basis for a search of your vehicle that resulted in additional charges? WHERE this alleged violation occurred could be the KEY to your defense. Recently, the Iowa Court of Appeals decided that having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle on PRIVATE PROPERTY does not violate Iowa law.

In the July 2015 decision State v. Brown, No. 13-2054 (2015), the defendant was in a parked vehicle in a privately-owned parking lot when three Des Moines police officers approached the vehicle on foot. As the officers approached the vehicle, an officer noticed an open bottle of an alcoholic beverage sitting in the center console and believed this was a violation of Iowa's open container law, Iowa Code Section 321.284(1). The officers proceeded to remove the car's occupants and search the vehicle, after which they found evidence of drug use in the passenger compartment.

Iowa's open container law provides, in part, "A driver of a motor vehicle upon a public street or highway shall not possess in the passenger area of the motor vehicle an open or unsealed bottle, can, jar, or other receptacle containing an alcoholic beverage." Iowa Code Section 321.284(1) (emphasis added). "Street" and "highway" are further defined as "the entire width between property lines of every way or place of whatever nature when any part thereof is open to the use of the public, as a matter of right, for purposes of vehicular traffic." Iowa Code Section 321.1(78).

The defendant/driver was charged with possession of marijuana. She filed a motion to suppress arguing the officers lacked probable cause to search the automobile because the open container law did not prohibit her from drinking in the automobile in the parking lot, thus any alcoholic beverage containers that were seen or could be found in the vehicle would not constitute contraband. The trial court denied the motion and she was found guilty.

On appeal to the Iowa Court of Appeals, the Court disagreed with the trial court's interpretation of the law that private property was covered if it was simply open to the public at the time. Noting the statutory language and the arresting officer's testimony on the private nature of the parking lot property, the judges found the open container statute did not apply. They specified that "the definition of public and private depend on who has the right to use the area, not whether one is physically able to obtain entrance into the area. This was a privately owned parking lot and clearly not an area between property lines."

The Court found no violation of the open container law, meaning no contraband existed in plain view and NO PROBABLE CAUSE existed for a further warrantless search of the vehicle under the automobile exemption of the Fourth Amendment. The mistake of law required suppression of any evidence discovered as a result.

If you find yourself in a similar situation or are charged with an open container violation, contact Spellman Law, P.C. at (515) 222-4330 to discuss your case.

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