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Iowa Supreme Court Announces Greater Privacy Protections Under State Constitution for Impounded Vehicles Than Provided by Fourth Amendment

by Richard Resch

The Supreme Court of Iowa announced a stricter legal framework for warrantless inventory searches and seizures of vehicles being impounded under the Iowa Constitution than required by the U.S. Supreme Court under its recent case law interpreting the Fourth Amendment.

On October 30, 2015, police pulled Bion Ingram over because his vehicle’s license plate was not illuminated as required by law. During the traffic stop, the officer discovered that the vehicle’s registration had expired. The officer decided to impound the vehicle, but he did not arrest Ingram.

The vehicle was going to be towed. Another officer arrived and inventoried the contents of the vehicle without a warrant. During the inventory, the officer discovered a cloth bag on the floor and opened it. A glass pipe containing a gram of meth was inside. Ingram was arrested and charged with possession of meth and drug paraphernalia.

Ingram filed a motion to suppress based on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. He argued that the inventory was merely a pretext to search his vehicle without a warrant. The district court denied the motion, ruling that inventory searches are an exception to the warrant requirement. Ingram was found guilty of both charges, and he appealed.

The Iowa Supreme Court used this case as an opportunity to definitively distinguish the contours of the warrant requirement under the Iowa Constitution from the U.S. Constitution with respect to inventory searches and seizures. The Court explained that although the search and seizure provisions contained in both Constitutions are similar “that does not mean the two regimes and the cases under them may be conflated.” The Court stated that it has repeatedly declined to follow the approach of the U.S. Supreme Court in its recent search and seizure cases, which has been characterized in the literature “as an ever-shrinking Fourth Amendment.”

Although Ingram raised both federal and state constitutional issues on appeal, the Court resolved the case by relying on the Iowa Constitution.

The Iowa Supreme Court observed that under recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, “the nature and scope of the warrantless search must be conducted pursuant to a standardized local policy. If the warrantless impoundment of the vehicle and the warrantless search of the vehicle are authorized by reasonable local policy, the warrantless inventory search passes constitutional muster.” [internal citations omitted]

The Iowa Supreme Court rejected this approach to warrantless inventory searches and seizures under the Iowa Constitution. It characterized the U.S. Supreme Court’s treatment under the Fourth Amendment as “[a]n essentially unregulated legal framework allowing wide police discretion in stopping, arresting, and conducting warrantless inventory searches of the driver’s automobile [that] amounts to a general warrant regime that is anathema to search and seizure law.”

In condemning the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent departure “from the traditional warrant preference under the Fourth Amendment,” the Iowa Supreme Court stated, “we have declined to do so…. Our recent cases repeatedly embrace what can only be characterized as a strong warrant preference interpretation of article I, section 8.” The Court added that while the U.S. Supreme Court has relaxed the traditional warrant requirement to advance law enforcement interests, “we have held firm in protecting privacy interests through a robust warrant requirement.”

The Court then announced the permissible scope of an inventory search of a vehicle being impounded. It instructed: “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 the vehicle will not be opened but stored for safekeeping as a unit unless the owner or operator directs otherwise.” Police may ask the driver whether anything of value is being left behind in the vehicle and make a record of the response to protect against subsequent claims of theft.

In applying the newly announced requirements to the facts of the present case, the Court concluded that none of the requirements for a warrantless inventory search and seizure occurred. Absent a knowing and voluntary consent by Ingram, searching the bag—a closed container—was impermissible, the Court concluded.

Accordingly, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the district court ruling denying the motion to suppress and remanded the case to the district court. See: State v. Ingram, 914 N.W.2d 794 (Iowa 2018). 


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Related legal case

State v. Ingram



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