In July of 2018, in a landmark decision the Iowa Supreme Court held that inventory searches violate the Iowa Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Arizona Constitution contains a similar provision in Section 2, Article 10, which reads “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded without authority of law.” Unlike the Arizona Constitution, which specifically enunciates a “right to privacy,” the Iowa Constitution closely mirrors the language of the Fourth Amendment. But the Iowa Supreme Court nonetheless decided to “stake out higher constitutional ground” and “reach results different from current United States Supreme Court precedent under parallel provisions.” We need far more of that here in Arizona.
Each state’s supreme court is tasked with determining what its own state constitution says. Recognizing that it is the “ultimate arbiter” of what its own constitution says, the Iowa Supreme Court determined took the opportunity to criticize the U.S. Supreme Court for what many of us in the criminal defense community have noticed for the past several decades: the U.S. Supreme Court has been bending over backwards to “minimize the scope of individual protection under the Fourth Amendment.” In other words, recent SCOTUS decisions have been generally widening the scope of police powers and abrogating our rights to be free from illegal search and seizure in case after case after case.
The Iowa Supreme Court decision in State of Iowa v. Bion Blake Ingram, No. 16-0736, was amajor victory for private property rights and civil liberties and serves as a powerful reminder for how state constitutions can provide more protection for individual rights, especially when federal courts seem to trend in favor of expanding police power. The Arizona Supreme Court should take note of how its done.
In October of 2015, the defendant was driving to work along and was pulled over by police because his license plate light was not working properly. During the stop, a Sheriff’s deputy concluded the defendant’s registration had expired and decided he needed impound the defendant’s car. Inside the defendant’s vehicle, police found a glass pipe and one gram of methamphetamine. The police did not have probable cause to search the vehicle nor a search warrant but they searched the vehicle anyways under what is called the “inventory exception” to the warrant requirement. Under the inventory exception, police can catalogue what is inside a vehicle when before they impound it. Police often use the inventory exception when they want to search a vehicle but cannot develop probable cause. Inventory searches are a frequent occurrence Tucson and are all too often utilized by police as a means to search people’s vehicles without a warrant and without probable cause.
The defendant in the Ingram case argued the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights and his rights under the Iowa Constitution and filed a motion to suppress the evidence. The motion was denied by the trial court judge, who held that “inventory searches are an exception to the warrant requirement.” Thanks to a string of unfavorable decisions by SCOTUS, police are allowed to conduct inventory searches without a warrant, as long as those searches comply with a “reasonable” police policy. But those policies are created by the very police agencies which perform the searches, and those polices do not even have to be written down; they can be set by “custom and practice,” which generally allows police to inventory search a vehicle any time they impound a vehicle. And because police officers often hold the decision-making authority on when and where to impound a vehicle, it gives police the power to search a vehicle whenever they want to.
These SCOTUS decisions are part of a “disturbing trend” in case law protecting traffic stops, and have given police “virtually unlimited discretion” to search. As the Iowa Supreme Court pointed out, SCOTUS has recently held that police have to power “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.”
So when the Iowa Supreme Court got the chance, it unanimously held that the Iowa Constitution—unlike the U.S. Constitution—does not allow inventory searches. The Iowa Supreme Court “restore[d] the balance between citizens and law enforcement…by decoupling Iowa law from the winding and often surprising decisions of the United States Supreme Court.” The Iowa Supreme Court criticized the federal precedents that created “an essentially unregulated legal framework” for warrantless inventory searches that “amounts to a general warrant regime…anathema to search and seizure law.” The SCOTUS approach to inventory searches has been “rich with irony.” First, because “local law is authorized to restrict itself,” it contradicts the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment, which was “explicitly designed as a bulwark to restrain law enforcement in the context of searches and seizures.” Letting law enforcement police itself is like letting the fox guard the henhouse and is “unlikely to provide robust protections to persons drawn into the warrantless inventory search and seizure net and more likely to reflect law enforcement convenience.” Second, allowing unwritten police policies for warrantless inventory searches counters the writing requirement for warrants under Fourth Amendment law:
“The writing requirement ensures there is no dispute regarding the showing of probable cause made by law enforcment officers or regarding the scope of the warrant itself. It prevents after-the-fact justifications by law enforcement. The notion that an ex ante writing prevents post hoc judgments has been an important part of search and seizure law for a long time. The United States Supreme Court approach to unwritten policies in the field of warrantless inventory searches lacks these important disciplining features.”
The prosecution echoed what police say all the time here in Arizona—that inventory searches have to be conducted in order to protect the safety of the officers, to deter false claims of lost property, and to protect the owner’s of property to keep their things safe. But these arguments are ridiculous and the Iowa Supreme Court was wise to reject them. When a car has been impounded in a secure location, it has been separated from the driver and thus is no longer a danger to anyone. In fact, the late Justice Antonin Scalia (often a true champion of the Fourth Amendment, believe it or not) ridiculed this “public safety” argument, calling it “a charade.” That “same reasoning” could justify “a warrantless search of any locked and parked automobile to protect the public.” Such a search “without any showing at all regarding potential safety issues is akin to a general warrant.”
The Iowa Supreme Court also criticized prosecutors for failing to cite “any empirical evidence that false claims are a serious problem.” Inventory lists would hardly deter false claims since an accuser could easily say that the valuables were stolen before the inventory or were simply not included in that list. Simply sealing containers “would provide at least as much protection to the remote threat as a warrantless inventory search.” People leave their belongings locked in cars all the time, every day. I doubt police really have our best interests at heart when they do these inventory searches.
None of us want police snooping around our cars, even if we have nothing to hide. Plus, if the whole point of inventory searches is to “protect the owner,” shouldn’t we have “the option to opt out of the state’s beneficence” or make alternate arrangements to protect their property?
With this ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court joins only a handful of other states that have rebuked SCOTUS on this warrant loophole. The Arizona Supreme Court should be next in line. While SCOTUS has in recent years “relaxed the grip of the traditional warrant requirement to advance the claimed interests of law enforcement, our Supreme Court needs to hold firm “in protecting privacy interests through a robust warrant requirement.” Our courts in Arizona would be wise to learn a lesson from Iowa on this one: our constitution goes much further than the federal constitution and does a better job at protecting the rights of our citizens than the federal constitution does. But it will take our state Supreme Court to enforce those rights in order to give them any real meaning.
If you or a loved one have been the subject of a police search, contact a Tucson criminal defense attorney at the Law Office of Hernandez & Hamilton, PC today for a free consultation.