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Respect the van: high court reverses OWI conviction, tosses evidence


Today, in State v. Tyler Cody Smith, the Iowa Supreme Court in a published per curiam (full court) opinion reversed the OWI (DUI) conviction and sentence of a driver who ran his car in a ditch, left the car on foot, but was stopped as a passenger in a relative’s van because the officer alleged he was “checking on the welfare of the people” but “found it suspicious that the vehicle driving and the vehicle in the ditch had the same address” four miles away. The Court thus found that the so-called “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement did not apply to this situation.

The Court summoned the Coffman decision earlier this year when it engaged a three part analysis to determine whether community caretaking should apply to this case.

The Court asked:

(1) was there a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment?;

(2) if so, was the police conduct bona fide community caretaker activity?; and

(3) if so, did the public need and interest outweigh the intrusion upon the privacy of the citizen?

The Court found that the relative’s van stop was indisputably a seizure. But it found that the officer was not subjectively engaged in a “bona fide” community caretaking activity.

The Court wrote:

“A vehicle that veers into a roadside ditch at 4:30 a.m. on a weekend is often the result of impaired driving. Given all the facts and circumstances we have recited, we conclude that the van stop was investigatory in nature. The van stop would have comprised an effort to locate [the driver] not to potentially help him, but to investigate how he drove the car into the ditch.”

The Court also found the intrusion significant—seizing a moving vehicle—when the officer could have just followed the vehicle to its destination and asked residents about the ditched car.

The Court ended with a “thought experiment.” It wrote:

“Suppose [the suspected drunk driver] had not been found in the van, but the stop of the van had revealed that [the van owner] was doing something wrong. Would [the van owner's] motion to suppress be sustained? We think so.”

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC has no involvement in this case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for OWI (DUI) or other offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC for a free initial consultation.

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