Iowa Supreme Court takes a stand for Fourth Amendment rights
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that impounding a car and conducting an inventory search without a warrant violated the Iowa Constitution’s protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Although the Iowa Constitution’s provision is similarly worded to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Iowa Supreme Court decided to “stake out higher constitutional ground” and “reach results different from current United States Supreme Court precedent under parallel provisions.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Brent Appel noted that his court is the “ultimate arbiter” for the meaning of the Iowa Constitution, and repeatedly chastised the U.S. Supreme Court for seeking “to minimize the scope of individual protection under the Fourth Amendment.” Not only is this decision a victory for private property and civil liberties, the case is a potent reminder for how state constitutions can better protect individual rights when federal courts refuse to do so.
How did we get to this point?
Thanks to a string of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, police can conduct inventory searches without a warrant, so long as those searches comply with a “reasonable” local policy. But those policies are created by the very agencies that perform the searches. Nor do those policies have to be written down; they can instead be set by “custom and practice.”
These precedents, when coupled with a “disturbing trend” in caselaw for traffic stops, have imbued law enforcement with “virtually unlimited discretion.” As the Iowa Supreme Court, police have the 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 Ingram appealed his case, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in his favor and took the opportunity “to restore the balance between citizens and law enforcement…by decoupling Iowa law from the winding and often surprising decisions of the United States Supreme Court.” In the majority opinion, Justice Appel decried 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.”
Warrants exist to protect citizens from abritrary state behavior. That the U.S. Supreme Court has loosened the Fourth Amendment protections to such a degree that warrants aren't used at all is deeply troubling...which makes the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling all the more heartening.
States can, and sometimes even do, act as counterbalances to federal power. In this instance, Iowa, like a handful of other states, has pushed the balace back in favor of individuals and their constitutional rights.