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Iowa Supreme Court limits warrantless inventory searches of cars

"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," Justice Brent R. Appel of the Iowa Supreme Court wrote recently, "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 has determined that the Iowa Constitution provides greater protection against warrantless searches than does the federal constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions had whittled away the requirement that law enforcement obtain a warrant before searching a person's property -- particularly in vehicle searches. The Iowa Supreme Court has decided not to follow the U.S. Supreme Court's reasoning.

The issue arose when a man was pulled over for a burned-out license plate bulb in 2015. During the traffic stop, a Jasper County Sheriff's deputy noticed that the man's registration had also expired. Although these offenses were negligible and unrelated to safety, the deputy impounded the man's car.

Whenever a car is impounded, the police are legally authorized to perform an inventory search. This is to ensure that the defendant's belongings are accounted for, but police often discover evidence during inventory searches. Such evidence is generally admissible in court.

When this defendant's car was searched, officers found a small amount of methamphetamine and the man was charged with felony possession.

The defendant, however, insisted that the decision to impound his car was made on a pretext. There was no real reason to impound the car, he suspected, but the deputy wanted to search it and did not have probable cause for a warrant.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court precedents, the true motivation for the search doesn't matter as long as the search is objectively reasonable. This focus on reasonableness, the Iowa Supreme Court decided, gives police free rein to decide when such searches can be performed.

The ultimate result of the U.S. Supreme Court cases, Justice Appel wrote, "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. 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 court found that Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution requires a warrant in these circumstances. It suppressed the evidence found during the unlawful search.

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