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Hello, this is Summary Judgment, a podcast offering easy-to-understand explanations of major court cases as they are decided.  I’m Alan Mygatt-Tauber.

This week we’re discussing Iowa v. Ingram, a Supreme Court of Iowa case about the warrantless inventory search of a car.

Bion Ingram was pulled over by police in Newton, Iowa when the officer noticed the license plate of his car was not illuminated.  After speaking with Ingram, the officer also noticed that the car’s registration sticker did not match its license plate.  Based on the registration violation, the officer decided to impound the vehicle and told Ingram it would be towed.  Ingram was not arrested at that point.  Another officer arrived and inventoried the contents of the vehicle.  A warrant was not obtained.

During the inventory, the second officer found a black cloth bag on the floor near the gas pedal.  When he opened the bag, the officer discovered a glass pipe and what field tests revealed to be almost a gram of methamphetamine.  Ingram was arrested.

Ingram filed a motion to suppress the evidence based on both the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa constitution, which contains substantially similar wording.  The district court denied the motion and Ingram appealed.

The Court began by noting that while the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, the Iowa Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the meaning of the Iowa Constitution.  While the two provisions at issue are similarly worded, there is no need to conflate the two documents.  Iowa can, and does, interpret its constitution differently than the Supreme Court interprets the Fourth Amendment.  In this case, that ends up making all the difference. 

For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourth Amendment as allowing warrantless inventory searches of automobiles, if they are conducted pursuant to policies adopted by law enforcement which govern the decision to impound the vehicle and the nature and scope of any subsequent search.  Many state supreme courts have rejected this policy approach in favor of a more restrictive approach that limits warrantless searches and seizures of automobiles.  With this case, Iowa joins them.

The Court next turned to what it called an overview of Constitutional Choices.  It noted that when interpreting an open-textured provision, it is the Court’s duty to select from possible plausible alternative approaches to best reflect the important constitutional values underlying the text.  Here, the Court felt it would be useful to examine the choices made by the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as other states, in order to make the best choice for Iowa.  Finally, the Court noted the Supreme Court’s own observation that states are free to offer more protection under their constitutions than the Federal Constitution offers.

The Court then surveyed a variety of early cases dealing with the question and noted that courts had taken different tacks.  Some held that the owner must be given the option of making alternatives to impoundment.  Others said that containers found in the vehicle may not be opened.  Some questioned the utility of an inventory at all, and still others were more solicitous of law enforcement.  Turning to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Iowa court found that in recent years, the Court had narrowly construed the Fourth Amendment, allowing more and more exceptions to the Warrant requirement.  The warrantless inventory search of an impounded car is no exception.

The Iowa Court noted that the Supreme Court’s methodology allowed local law enforcement, and not neutral magistrates, to determine the contours of the Fourth Amendment.  This was highly ironic, given the purpose of the Fourth Amendment, to serve as a bulwark against overly excessive law enforcement practices.  As a result, this decision by the US Supreme Court has not been without its detractors.

After discussing this history and surveying the opinions of both the U.S. Supreme Court and other state high courts, the Court finally turned to its decision in the case at hand.  It discussed what it called a disturbing trend related to traffic stops in federal caselaw.  A police officer may pull over a vehicle and his subjective motivation is not subject to review.  The driver may be arrested for a minor traffic violation, even if the violation is not subject to a jail term.  And then the police may conduct a warrantless inventory search, including opening closed containers if local, unwritten, policy allows it.  The Court concluded that this confluence of federal caselaw amounted to allowing a general warrant regime, which the Fourth Amendment was specifically designed to address and prevent.

While the U.S. Supreme Court may have allowed this under the Fourth Amendment, the Iowa Supreme Court has declined to follow suit under its parallel provision under the Iowa Constitution. In their own words, they have held firm in protecting privacy interests through a robust warrant requirement and they have tended to apply open-ended standards more stringently than federal caselaw.

Another area where the two courts have parted ways is in the evaluation of the strength of competing interests involved in warrantless inventory searches of automobiles.  While the federal courts have tended to downplay the individual interest in privacy while enlarging the interests of law enforcement, the Iowa courts have been more protective of the individual.

The Iowa Court found that individuals have a similar interest in the papers and effects they keep in their cars as they do in their homes.  On the flip side, the Court found law enforcement interests in preventing false claims to be ephemeral.  The Court did not find the risk of false claims to be very high.  There was no empirical evidence that such claims were a problem.  To the extent that such a claim is real, the Court found that a written inventory is not an effective way of dealing with it.  Someone determined to make a false claim will merely allege that the valuables were not included on the inventory, either accidently or by design.  There are other effective ways to secure property other than an inventory search.  Containers inside the vehicle may simply be sealed and stored.  Finally, under Iowa law, involuntary bailees are not responsible for loss of property unless guilty of gross negligence in its keeping.  In other words, the police are immunized from lost property claims.

The Court then turned to the second recognized justification for inventory searches – officer safety. The Court found that where the driver or owner is separated from the vehicle, and the vehicle is impounded, there is little risk.  A search of all cars that happen to be impounded, without any showing of a particular safety risk, the Court reasoned, was akin to a general warrant.  The Court also had trouble understanding how risks to officer safety would be increased by requiring containers to be stored as a unit, without specific knowledge of their contents.

Finally, the Court addressed the third interest cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, assisting the owner in the protection of valuables.  As the Court noted, if the risk of theft is insubstantial, the corresponding benefit is likewise insubstantial.  Also, the Court doubted whether most motorists would find a thorough inventory search to be helpful.  If the search is truly to the owner’s benefit, then the owner should have the right to decline and to make alternate arrangements for care and storage of the vehicle.

Based on the above, the majority came to the conclusion that the Iowa Constitution required more protection than the U.S. Constitution.  Specifically, the police should explore alternatives short of impoundment.  If impoundment is necessary, the driver should be given an opportunity to collect any property he wishes to retain.  With respect to property left behind, the officers can ask the driver or owner if there are any valuables that require safekeeping and make a record of the response, in order to protect law enforcement from later claims of loss.

However, under the Iowa Constitution, absent a specific consent to search, police must inventory closed containers left behind as a unit.  Any consent to search given must be knowing and voluntary.  To this end, the police should advise the owner or operator of the options to impoundment; personal items may be retrieved from the vehicle; and if the vehicle is impounded, containers found within will be stored for safekeeping as a unit unless the owner or operator directs otherwise.

Because none of these requirements were met in this case, the Court reversed and remanded the decision to exclude the evidence.

Two concurrences were filed.  Chief Justice Cady agreed that closed containers located in an impounded vehicle may not be opened by police for inventory purposes, absent consent.  However, he would rely on three other rationales that have allowed for inventory searches of personal property, plain view, safety checks under Terry v. Ohio, and probable cause to strike the appropriate balance of when to search items without consent.

Justice Mansfield, joined by two other justices, would have come to the same conclusion, but would have done so under existing Fourth Amendment caselaw.  Here, the state failed to provide any evidence of an inventory search policy regarding closed containers, and therefore, even under prevailing Fourth Amendment precedent, the search was illegal.  He further believed the majority’s new requirements would cause confusion and disarray going forward, therefore, he would rely on the current Fourth Amendment tests.

I have to admit, I am completely unfamiliar with Iowa constitutional law, and so I cannot comment on how the Court’s analysis treats that issue.  What I can say is, I found its reasoning regarding the Fourth Amendment to be very persuasive in that I do not believe the U.S. Supreme Court has done enough to protect the rights of people under the Fourth Amendment, creating more and more exceptions to the warrant requirement and finding all too many things to be reasonable.

I will also say that state constitutional law is an underexplored option for protecting the rights of people.  Oftentimes, state constitutions provide greater protections for rights than those granted in the Federal Constitution.  In fact, many states protect rights, such as the right to education, that are not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Bill of Rights or the subsequent amendments.  It has long been recognized by federal courts that the U.S. Constitution provides a floor of protections for individual liberties, not a ceiling.  Practitioners in state courts would do well to remember that there exists an alternative body of law which may be more protective of their clients’ rights and seek to enforce those rights under State constitutions, particularly where the U.S. Supreme Court has been less protective.

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