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Iowa high court: police did not seize DUI arrestee, interaction "consensual"

police officer

The Iowa Supreme Court has decided an OWI (DUI) case finding that police did not have to constitutionally justify a conversation with a stopped driver under the state and federal constitutions. Pursuant to United States Constitution Amend IV and Iowa Constitution Article I § 8, an officer must typically have reasonable suspicion to believe a crime is occurring or probable cause that a traffic violation has occurred to justify a “seizure,” or, stop, using emergency top lights and siren. Warrantless seizures are “per se” unreasonable and must be justified under a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement. However, when no seizure occurs, no justification is required.

In State of Iowa vs. Kari Lee Fogg, the Court recounted that a police officer saw a car “driving suspiciously for several minutes in a residential neighborhood at night at a snail’s pace of ten miles per hour.” However, the car pulled into a one lane alley and “did not emerge.” When a police officer observed this, they entered the alley and “stopped his own patrol car at least twenty feet away” and merely walked up to the driver to “engage in a conversation.”

After a brief conversation, in which the driver said she was checking to see whether she had to report to the city that the “alley was crooked,” the officer smelled alcohol and eventually arrested her for first offense operating while intoxicated.

The driver moved to suppress the evidence, stating that the officer had no reasonable suspicion to believe a crime was occurring or that there was contraband present. The district court found that there was no seizure because the officer did not activate emergency top lights, left his own low beams on, parked 20 feet away, and merely had a conversation with the driver when she opened her own car door.

After a trial in which the jury found her guilty, the driver appealed arguing, among other things, that her motion to suppress should have been granted.

The Iowa Supreme Court transferred the case to the Iowa Court of Appeals, immediately below the Iowa Supreme Court, and it affirmed, or, approved, the conviction and the handling of the suppression issue. The driver asked the Iowa Supreme Court to further review the case and it agreed.

Writing for the Iowa Supreme Court, Justice Mansfield found that the driver’s lawyer did not ask for a separate analysis of the Iowa Constitution. The threshold question, the Court wrote, was whether a seizure occurred at all to justify analysis under the state and federal constitutions.

“If no seizure occurred, a motion to suppress on that ground is without merit,” wrote Justice Mansfield. In effect, if there was no seizure and the interaction could be described as a mere sidewalk conversation like we have with our neighbors and friends every day—the conversation was not forced and not a seizure.

The driver must prove that a seizure occurred. The Court surmised the driver may have been submitting to police authority without “objective indices of police coercion” because of the commonly held belief and upbringing that we should cooperate with law enforcement. Wrote Justice Mansfield:

“Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude there was no seizure. Officer Frazier never activated the emergency lights on his vehicle. He parked at least twenty feet away from Fogg’s parked vehicle and approached her on foot. He did not shine a light into or knock on Fogg’s vehicle. In fact, Fogg opened her car door before Officer Frazier arrived. Officer Frazier engaged in conversation to ask if everything was ok and what was going on. None of this is objectively coercive.”

Justice Mansfield focused on the driver’s solitary point: that the alley was one way and a police car blocked forward movement—requiring her to put her car in reverse and back up 125 feet.

As a preliminary matter, the Court disagreed with the geography involved, finding it was less than 125 feet and that driveways accessible to the alley would have allowed for her to turn around.

Justice Appel wrote a dissent—that Justice Wiggins also joined—emphasizing what the dissent described as a controversial standard of whether a person would feel “reasonably free to leave” a purportedly consensual encounter with police. He recounted a psychological study regarding common obedience to authority. Moreover, the dissent also discussed the geography of the alleyway and a national survey of cases that included a Texas case that found a seizure does not “require complete closure of all theoretical routes of egress.”

Justice Appel wrote:

“The clear trend in the caselaw is to find a seizure when a police officer substantially blocks a vehicle from leaving the scene, even if already parked. Here, there is no question that Officer Frazier’s squad car substantially impaired the ability of Fogg to leave the scene. The fact that Fogg could have conceivably escaped is not determinative.”

The dissent also appeared to chastise the State for failing to brief the issues of reasonable suspicion and community caretaking, finding that it had waived those issues on appeal.

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

If you or a loved one have been arrested for OWI (DUI) or other criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact us for a free initial consult. 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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