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Iowa Supreme Court: DNR can patrol Lake Panorama

sailboat deck
The waterway, not privately owned shoreline, determines the Department of Natural Resources' jurisdiction, according to the Iowa Supreme Court.

January 31, 2020—today, the Iowa Supreme Court decided State v. Jeffrey Meyers, a boating while intoxicated case involving DNR officers who arrested an intoxicated boater. The arrest began with a citation for "blue lights" on a pontoon boat and a safety equipment check by DNR officers on Lake Panorama. Property association members consider the lake private and have posted signs to that effect. At issue is whether the DNR can patrol a private lake, or, in the alternative, whether Lake Panorama is public. The majority held that it is public and that DNR may, indeed, patrol . A dissent concluded it is private and that the DNR may thus not patrol it.

Justice Mansfield, writing for the Court, recited the relevant statute at the outset: “No person shall operate on the waters of this state under the jurisdiction of the conservation commission any vessel displaying or reflecting a blue light or flashing blue light unless such vessel is an authorized emergency vessel.”

The boater argued that Lake Panorama is a “private lake” pursuant to Iowa Code § 462A.2(31) over which the Department of Natural Resources has no jurisdiction.

The Court recounted a history of Lake Panorama, created in 1970 by damming the Middle Raccoon River from the northwest.

Justice Mansfield wrote, “Although the property owners association has attempted to block off that access, this does not change the character of the body of water as belonging to the people of Iowa.” The Court described those owners as “an association of private property owners who own the land around the lake.”

On the evening of the defendant’s arrest, the DNR officers were patrolling Lake Panorama. Several officers in boats were there in an organized “saturation patrol.” The Lake Panorama Association, or, LPA, rents a slip to the DNR.

The DNR officers spotted the boater’s “bloodshot watery eyes” and the odor of alcohol. When the DNR officers asked the boater to retrieve his fire extinguisher to demonstrate the presence of required safety equipment, the officers said he “fumbled the latch.” Officers also said they found an open beer container on board the boat.

According to the Court, the boater later provided a chemical specimen revealing that the boater had a blood alcohol content of .173 g ETOH/100 mL blood.

Officers then charged the boater with boating while intoxicated and four counts of child endangerment—because he had four children on board. The boater moved to suppress, arguing that the blue light prohibition only applied to public rivers and lakes—not Lake Panorama, which he considered a private lake.

At suppression hearing, a DNR officer testified that in 2006 and 2007, he put into the river at the state park to enforce boating rules on Lake Panorama “unannounced.” The district court denied the motion to suppress.

The defendant stipulated to a trial “on the minutes,” to preserve his appeal rights.

The Court decided that the Middle Raccoon River was a public navigable waterway before 1970 and continues to be that even though it feeds Lake Panorama, which landowners purport renders it private.

Wrote Justice Mansfield:

“The question is whether the 1970 dam somehow changed things for the stretch of the river that was widened to form Lake Panorama. We think not. When the dam was erected, it remained possible for a vessel to travel down the Middle Raccoon River into Lake Panorama. And if the river is indisputably open to the public and a boat can legally get from there to the lake, then the lake is “open to the use of the general public” and cannot be “used exclusively by the owners and their personal guests. See id. § 462A.2(31).”

The boater then cited to a 1970 Attorney General opinion that concluded Lake Panorama would be a “privately owned lake not under state jurisdiction.” 1970 Op. Iowa Att’y Gen 503, 508 (1970). The opinion stated that in order to be a private lake, it would have to “substantially limit” the public.

The Court rejected this view, stating that the test is whether the water is open to public use. The Court also noted administrative DNR law—which specifically delineates Lake Panorama, Lake Macbride, and Lake Delhi as lakes over which the public has access and the DNR has jurisdiction.

Justice Mansfield took the Lake Panorama property association to task, stating, “[a]rguably, the LPA wants it both ways. It wants the benefits of DNR boating law enforcement while also keeping the lake private to its members,” adding “[w]e do not think Iowa’s laws permit that.”

Because the blue light prohibition states that it applies only to waters under the jurisdiction of the “conservation commission,” an outdated body that was replaced by the natural resources commission, the defendant also argued that it cannot be enforced at all.

Justices Wiggins and Appel dissented. Justice Wiggins, writing for the dissent, cited to Article I § 8 of the Iowa Constitution, concluding that no probable cause for a blue light violation could exists because Lake Panorama is a private lake outside the jurisdiction of the DNR. Justice Wiggins wrote that Lake Panorama is not a public lake under common property law because association members own the shoreline and the lake bed. He also argued forcefully that the officers could not be forgiven for a mere mistake of fact—because the mistake was one of law, and that officers in Iowa are presumed to know the law and must follow it. In other words, Justice Wiggins argued that the so-called “good faith” exception applicable in federal courts to law enforcement mistakes of law should continue to be prohibited in Iowa courts.

David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Meyers case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for OWI (DUI) or other criminal charge 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 no attorney-client relationship is established by sending unsolicited information to a lawyer over the Internet.

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