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Iowa Supreme Court okays suspicionless stop of parked motorist at roadside


High court okays traffic stops on parked cars at roadside where no evidence of a crime exists, but requires "bona fide" intent on part of officer to engage in possibly necessary assistance or emergency aid.

January 22, 2018—The Iowa Supreme Court today upheld an OWI conviction challenged on the grounds that the so-called “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement-- allowing officers to initially seize motorists that officers initially claim they intended to help-- was invalid.

In State of Iowa v. Coffman, a Story County Sheriffs Deputy pulled in behind a car on the shoulder of the highway outside Slater, Iowa at 1 AM. The deputy activated emergency top lights, ostensibly to alert the driver that it was a law enforcement official and not a stranger pulling up behind him, and also to safely alert passersby that there were cars parked on the shoulder.

The Coffman defendant alleged a seizure of his person and argued there was neither reasonable suspicion to believe a crime was occurring nor contraband present—and that further there was no probable cause that the motorist was committing a traffic violation.

Only after the deputy stopped and got out of his car with top lights on did he admit that he noticed that a license plate frame obscured a registration sticker.

When the deputy approached the open driver’s side window of the Coffman defendant’s car, he testified that he smelled a “strong odor” of an alcoholic beverage. He asked the driver and his passenger if everything was okay. When the motorist and the passenger answered in the affirmative, the deputy asked, “what’s going on?” The driver explained that he was rubbing his wife’s neck because she had “neck issues.”

The deputy then began inquiring as to how much the driver had to drink, requested the performance of standardized field sobriety tests, or, SFSTs, and administered a roadside preliminary breath test, or, PBT. According to the decision, the driver “failed” the SFSTs and submitted to the PBT, the deputy invoked implied consent and took the driver to the stationhouse for further testing. At the law enforcement center, the driver refused further evidentiary chemical testing.

The Coffman defendant moved to suppress testimony and exhibits occurring after the stop he considered illegal. The district court denied the motion. The defendant moved to reconsider. The district court again denied the motion. He submitted the case to the court for a “trial on the minutes” to preserve his right to appeal on the pretrial issues. On direct appeal, he challenged the validity of the stop under both the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions.

Writing for the Court, Justice Mansfield noted that the District Court ruling denying the motion to suppress held that the late hour and the fact that car was parked within two feet of the traveled portion of the highway meant it would be irresponsible for the officer to merely drive on by. Justices Cady, Waterman, and Zager joined the majority opinion. Justice Appel and Wiggins, however, dissented.

“Under our precedent, the officer does not need specific facts indicating that assistance is needed, only that it may be needed,” wrote the court. The Court added a requirement that “the officer acted out of a genuine community caretaking motivation,” calling into question the subjective intent of the officer. It referenced early language that the community caretaking be “bona fide,” naturally calling into question the officer’s subjective intent in engaging in the warrantless seizure.

The Court laid out the test historically required to apply the community caretaking function in Iowa as follows:

1. That the community caretaking be “bona fide”—now clearly an objective and subjective test involving the real reasons the officer made the seizure;

2. That “the public need and interest outweigh the intrusion upon the privacy of the citizen”

The Court wrote, “under the Iowa Constitution, a community caretaking seizure of a vehicle must be undertaken for genuine community caretaking purposes. In a sense, this restores the community caretaking exception to its roots, where it was “totally divorced” from criminal investigation.”

The Court found that the officer in the Coffman case acted appropriately.

Justice Appel wrote a dissent which Justice Wiggins joined. Justice Appel indicated that some circuit courts had limited the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement only to to emergency aid doctrine situations-- accidents and injuries. The dissent noted that there already exists exceptions to justify many of the warrantless searches justified by community caretaking. The dissenters thus would have invalidated the search and opined that narrowing the public servant doctrine might help curb expansive warrantless searches.

“[T]he elimination of the potentially sprawling public-servant prong might be in order,” wrote Justice Appel, suggesting a solution for those who favor “bright line” rules. “[A” requirement of specific and particularized facts related to the question of whether the occupants of the parked vehicle are manifesting any desire for assistance” would help if the public servant doctrine remains.

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