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Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable seizures and searches shall not be violated.”[1] Although Art. I, § 8 is (except for a semi-colon) linguistically indistinguishable from the Fourth Amendment, the Iowa Supreme Court is often asked to interpret the provision more broadly than its federal analog.

In State v. Wright,[2] the Iowa Supreme Court considered whether a police officer violated Art. I, § 8 by searching someone’s trash in an alleyway without a warrant or probable cause on three separate occasions. Despite federal[3] and state appellate[4] decisions upholding similar “trash grabs,” the court exercised its authority to interpret the Iowa Constitution independently and held that the warrantless searches violated Art. I, § 8.[5]

These searches occurred after a Clear Lake, Iowa police officer concluded that Wright matched the description of a suspected local drug dealer. At night, the officer visited an alleyway behind Wright’s house and found opaque garbage bags, which he collected and subsequently searched at the police department. The officer returned to collect more garbage from the alleyway twice over the following months, finding poppy seeds and a piece of fabric that tested positive for morphine. Based on that evidence, the officer obtained and executed a search warrant. At Wright’s home, the police found two grams of marijuana and several capsules of a prescription drug for which Wright had no prescription.

In his motion to suppress, Wright raised two arguments: That the officer had physically trespassed on Wright’s property and that Wright had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his garbage. Both of Wright’s arguments relied on a Clear Lake ordinance making it unlawful “for any person to . . . [t]ake or collect any solid waste which has been placed out for collection on any premises, unless such person is an authorized solid waste collector.”[6]

In a 4-3 decision, the court held that the officer’s warrantless search of Wright’s garbage violated Art. I, § 8 of the Iowa Constitution. All four justices in the majority agreed on several points. First, the court held that the garbage bags were Wright’s “effects” despite being placed in the alleyway.[7] The majority reasoned that Wright did not truly abandon his garbage; rather, he “agreed only to convey his property to a licensed collector.”[8] The court next defined “trespass” to mean “any transgression or offense against the law of nature, of society, or of the country in which we live; whether it relate[s] to a man’s person, or his property.”[9] Applying that definition, the court relied on the trash collection ordinance to hold that the officer conducted unconstitutional trespasses in two ways. On one hand, the officer’s searches constituted a physical trespass on Wright’s effects because the ordinance prevented anyone other than Wright or a garbage collector from taking the garbage. On the other hand, Wright had a reasonable expectation of privacy “based on [the ordinance] that his garbage bags would be accessed only by a licensed collector under contract with the city.”[10] Lastly, four justices held that “the utility of warrantless trash grabs” is irrelevant to the court’s constitutional analysis.[11]

Three of the four justices joined a portion of the majority opinion discussing the evolution of search and seizure jurisprudence in state and federal courts. Those justices concluded that:

  • The original meaning of “reasonableness,” in both the Fourth Amendment and Art. I, § 8, referred to violations against the “reason of the common law” rather than reasonableness in a “relativistic, balancing sense”;[12]
  • Iowa courts adhered to this original understanding of Art. I, § 8 until the incorporation of the Bill of Rights, after which Iowa courts adopted two innovations in Fourth Amendment doctrine: a “relativistic” understanding of reasonableness and the displacement of common law trespass with a focus on the party’s reasonable expectation of privacy;[13]
  • In recent years, the Iowa Supreme Court has rejected a “lockstep approach” in favor of a “more historical approach” to Art. I, § 8, mirrored in the U.S. Supreme Court’s increasing skepticism of Katz and renewed emphasis on a trespass-based theory of the Fourth Amendment;[14]
  • Because Art. I, § 8 is “tied to common law trespass,” an officer engaged in general criminal investigation violates those protections by “commit[ting] a trespass against a citizen’s house, papers, or effects” without a warrant supported by probable cause.[15]

Justice Brent Appel’s concurring opinion emphasized the importance of independent constitutional interpretation and cataloged the U.S. Supreme Court’s “unsatisfactory approach to search and seizure matters.”[16] Despite joining the majority’s conclusion that the warrantless search violated Art. I, § 8, he cautioned against “search and seizure formalism” and the dismissal of Katz’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” test.[17]

Each of the dissenting justices authored a separate opinion highlighting their disagreements with the majority’s approach. First, the dissenters noted that Wright’s arguments were centered around an anti-scavenging law focused on health and safety, not privacy or property, and that the majority erred in relying on a series of unraised arguments.[18] Second, the dissenters argued that the majority wrongly equated the framers’ “focus[ ] on protecting private homes from searches pursuant to general warrants” with protecting “discarded trash.”[19] And because Wright did “not make a separate argument under the Iowa Constitution” for protecting garbage, the dissenters declined to diverge from the Fourth Amendment.[20] Third, the dissenters argued that Wright lacked standing because the garbage was abandoned and thus not an “effect” under Art. I, § 8.[21]

The dissenters’ chief criticism was that the majority, through its reliance on Clear Lake’s trash collection ordinance, adopted a “new de facto test” that prevents police from doing anything that private citizens cannot do.[22] The dissenters further argued that the majority’s test calls into question a variety of law enforcement privileges, including “increased arrest authority,” the right to enter private property to make an arrest, and using roadblocks for vehicle stops.[23] The majority replied that its holding does not implicate those issues and, therefore, that “[t]he dissents are directed at monsters of their own making.”[24]

Wright is a significant development in the Iowa Supreme Court’s interpretation of Art. I, § 8. Since 2010, the court has largely rejected lockstep interpretation in favor of independent constitutional interpretation.[25] All four justices in the majority continued that approach, while the dissenters indicated a willingness to interpret Art. I, § 8 independently when confronted with the sort of evidence they believe Wright failed to present.[26] Time will tell whether non-controlling portions of the majority opinion are ultimately adopted by four justices or, alternatively, whether the dissenters’ understanding of Art. I, § 8 prevails. Future cases will undoubtedly require the court to choose between lockstep and independent interpretation, and to clarify the role of positive law in the court’s constitutional analyses.

[1] Iowa Const. art. I, § 8.

[2] No. 19-0180, 2021 WL 2483567 (Iowa June 18, 2021).

[3] California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988).

[4] See, e.g., State v. Henderson, 435 N.W.2d 394 (Iowa Ct. App. 1988).

[5] Wright, 2021 WL 2483567 at *16–17.

[6] Id. at *15.

[7] Id. at *13–14.

[8] Id. at *14.

[9] Id. at *14 (quoting 3 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 208 (1768)).

[10] Id. at *17. The majority noted that positive law is “merely one form of evidence of the limits of a peace officer’s authority to act without a warrant.” Id. at *16.

[11] Id. at *18 (“[T]he utility of warrantless activity is not the issue under our constitution.”).

[12] Id. at *5.

[13] Id. at *7–8.

[14] Id. at *8–10.

[15] Id. at *11.

[16] Id. at *22. (Appel, J., concurring specially); see also id. at *21 (“A recent book by Judge Jeff Sutton demolished the argument that state courts should simply follow federal law.”) (citing JEFFREY S. SUTTON, 51 IMPERFECT SOLUTIONS: STATES AND THE MAKING OF AMERICAN CONSITUTIONAL LAW (2018)).

[17] Id. at *25.

[18] Id. at *26–28 (Christensen, C.J., dissenting).

[19] Id. at *45 (Waterman, J., dissenting).

[20] Id. at *38 (Christensen, C.J., dissenting).

[21] Id. at *50 (Mansfield, J., dissenting).

[22] Id. at *44 (Waterman, J., dissenting).

[23] Id. at *43 (Christensen, C.J., dissenting).

[24] Id. at *11 & n. 5.

[25] See State v. Ochoa, 792 N.W.2d 260, 267 (2010) (“[W]e will engage in independent analysis of the content of our state search and seizure provisions.”); see also State v. Short, 851 N.W.2d 474 (2014) (affirming the court’s “approach to independent state constitutional law under article I, section 8”).

[26] See, e.g., Wright, 2021 WL 2483567 at *38 (Christensen, C.J., dissenting) (“[T]o make an independent argument under the state clause takes homework—in texts, in history, in alternative approaches to analysis. It is not enough to ask the state court to reject a Supreme Court opinion on the comparable federal clause merely because one prefers the opposite result.”) (quoting Hans A. Linde, First Things First: Rediscovering the States’ Bills of Rights, 9 U. Balt. L. Rev. 379, 392 (1980)).