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Iowa high court tosses 80 pounds of pot

police car

November 8, 2019—the Iowa Supreme Court today decided State v. Salcedo today, holding that the State did not establish reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop which led to the search and seizure of 80 pounds of marijuana.

In Salcedo, an Iowa Sheriffs deputy conducted a traffic stop for a violation of Iowa Code § 321.297, which states that it is a violation of the rules of road to drive slower than “normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic upon all roadways.”

In so doing, the deputy found the occupants’ answers to questions “suspicious” and purportedly extended the traffic stop to obtain their consent to search for narcotics. The officer located and then seized 80 pounds of marijuana. The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that there was no reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop beyond that necessary to cite or warn the driver, that the slow moving traffic statute was “void for vagueness,” that consent to search was involuntary, and that there really was no probable cause to stop the car in the first place.

Justice Christiansen, writing for the court, wrote that a Johnson County, Iowa, deputy was patrolling Interstate 80 following up on a report of an alleged reckless driver. Seeing another car driving slower than him in the fast lane, he moved to the right lane and paced the driver at 60 mph in a 70 mph zone. He stopped the driver for a violation of Iowa Code § 321.297 describe above.

In questioning the driver and its occupants, the deputy became suspicious that the occupants were using a rental car and had come from California. They were carrying all of their personal belongings in the passenger compartment apparently instead of the trunk. He questioned the driver whether he had any methamphetamine, heroin, or marijuana. He even asked the driver whether he was carrying any “weapons of mass destruction.” The answers to these questions were negative though he admitted that he was carrying $300 when questioned about carrying cash. The deputy sought consent to search and ultimately the driver told him to “do what he needed to do.”

The search allegedly revealed 80 pounds of marijuana. The State then charged the defendant with possession with the intent to deliver marijuana. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence. When the district court denied his motion, he sought discretionary review to reverse the order denying suppression.

Justice Christiansen wrote that it was unnecessary to apply Article I § 8 of the Iowa Constitution because prolonging the seizure for a traffic violation for purposes of investigating drug interdiction violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The deputy’s testimony indicated that he initially considered his “red flags”—rental car, California point of departure, fast-food wrappers, no luggage, nervous demeanor, disbelief in their travel plans—only on his second trip to the car, after he had already prolonged the stop.

Regardless, the Supreme Court was unimpressed that these so-called “red flags” amounted to reasonable suspicion to believe a crime was afoot or contraband was present. The deputy had not even noticed that the rental car agreement was in the name of someone not even in the car.

“We conclude the constitutionally permissible traffic stop became unlawful when it was unreasonably prolonged. See Peralez, 526 F.3d at 1120 (holding stop was delayed because of trooper’s questions, “not because of anything related to the investigation or processing of the traffic violation”). [The officer’s] mission is to address [defendant’s] traffic infraction and it may last no longer than is reasonably necessary to complete the mission,” wrote Justice Christiansen.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Salcedo case

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact us for a free initial consult. We’re here for you. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending unsolicited information to a lawyer over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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