Friday, May 16, 2008
Snake In A Car: Supreme Court Of Iowa Finds That Warrantless Search Behind Steering Column Was Proper
The Supreme Court of Iowa's recent opinion Iowa v. Allensworth is a strange case with a simple ruling. In Allensworth, a Polk County sheriff's deputy stopped a vehicle for speeding, and the driver, Allen Allensworth, disclosed that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. What Allensworth didn't have to verbalize was that there was a large snake draped around his neck. The deputy confirmed that Allensworth had an outstanding warrant for a parole violation and arrested him; he decided to defer his inventory search of Allensworth's vehicle until it was towed and impounded based upon the amount of traffic and the snake.
Approximately two hours after Allensworth's vehicle was towed and impounded, the deputy received an anonymous phone call that there were drugs in Allensworth's vehicle. The deputy and another officer subsequently conducted an inventory search of the vehicle and found a small bag of marijuana in the center console. Then, knowing that the steering column "was a known place where people hide drugs," the other officer removed the horn button on the steering column and discovered a small plastic bag containing approximately 25 grams of methamphetamine.
Allensworth was then charged with possession with intent to distribute more then 5 grams of methamphetamine and failure to possess a drug tax stamp. He then filed a pro se motion to suppress the drugs on the ground that they were seized in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion with regard to the marijuana, finding that it was properly seized in conjunction with a proper inventory search, but it granted the motion with regard to the methamphetamine, finding that the search of the steering column exceeded the proper scope of an inventory search. The State then appealed this ruling, with its appeal eventually reaching the Supreme Court of Iowa.
The Supreme Court of Iowa noted that an inventory search of an automobile can blossom into a full blown search under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement if probable cause is found. The Court then determined that this is exactly what happened based upon the anonymous tip and/or the discovery of marijuana in the console. The Court then rejected Allensworth's argument that after discovering the marijuana, the officers were required to obtain a search warrant before they could legally extend the search beyond the scope of the inventory. It found instead that a search pursuant to the automobile exception may be as thorough as a magistrate could authorize in a warrant, relying in part for this conclusion on the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 172-73 (1925), which uphold an automobile search that included tearing open a vehicle's seat cushion to find suspected contraband.
The Supreme Court of Iowa also rejected the argument of the trial court and the defendant that the probable cause which can transform an inventory search into a search under the automobile exception must arise at the scene of the stop. It found instead that "the only exigency required to justify a warrantless search of a vehicle is the vehicle's ready mobility."