High Court Strikes Down Iowa's Traffic Stop-and-Search Law
Tuesday, December 8, 1998
DES MOINES--In a solid victory for the freedom and privacy of all Iowans, the United States Supreme Court today put an end to the police practice of arbitrarily searching people stopped for minor traffic violations.
The Iowa Civil Liberties Union, one of several groups that filed a "friend-of-the-court" brief in the case, hailed the unanimous ruling in Knowles v. Iowa authored by Chief Justice Rehnquist.
"Iowa's brief experiment with a police state is now, thankfully, over," said Ben Stone, Executive Director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, a vocal foe of the tactic. "Iowans can once again enjoy the freedom of knowing they can drive down the street and not fear being searched by a police officer if they make an illegal turn or forget to use their turn signal."
Today's decision overturns a 5-4 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court in 1997, upholding the police practice known as "search incident to citation." Normally, police must either physically arrest someone or have "probable cause" before they can conduct a search.
The Iowa court in the Knowles case had said the code of Iowa authorized police to search people cited with for traffic violations even if they were not taken into custody, and that such searches were not in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The State of Iowa had argued that concerns for officer safety and the preservation of evidence justified the search tactic. The Court found both rationales lacking. "Even without the search authority Iowa urges, officers have other, independent bases to search for weapons and protect themselves from danger," wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "Nor has Iowa shown . . . the need to discover and preserve evidence. Once Knowles was stopped for speeding and issued a citation, all the evidence necessary to prosecute that offense had been obtained."
Stone noted that the Court could have waited until June to rule on the case, but instead issued its decision less than five weeks after oral arguments. "The Justices' extremely swift reversal reveals both how easy it was for the Court to find this outrageous affront to liberty unconstitutional, and how important it was to protect Iowans from any further violations of their privacy by the police," he said.
The ICLU, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers vigorously opposed the police practice in a friend-of-the-court brief authored by Professor Jim Tomkovicz of the University of Iowa Law School.
Attorneys Paul Rosenberg and Maria Ruhtenberg of Des Moines argued the case on behalf of Patrick Knowles, a Newton man stopped for speeding in 1996 and subsequently searched simply because he was receiving a traffic ticket. He was arrested and sentenced to 90 days in jail after police found marijuana under his seat.