UPDATES & ANALYSIS

11.15

Police can’t detain a car’s occupants simply because there was “movement inside the vehicle with moisture on the windows.”

by Ryan Koopmans | November 15, 2015

By Ryan Koopmans

Oskaloosa, Saturday, December 14.  The time? 1:45 a.m.  Closing time.

Officer Blaine Shutts is on patrol.  The location? V.F.W. Post #2237. Shutts sees two cars in a nearby lot with lights on.  He circles the block.  Now there’s only one set of headlights; but still the same two cars.  Why turn off the lights, Shutts wonders.

He approaches; notices “movement inside” and “moisture on the windows.”  What could possibly be going on inside the car? At this time of night? On a weekend? Outside a bar?

Officer Shutts is unsure.  He illuminates his red lights.  The situation needs further investigation.

Inside the car is a man and a woman.  They were “just talking,” they tell him.  But the man was talking (in a running vehicle, in the driver’s seat) with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.  So Officer Shutts takes him into custody.

*         *          *

Those were the facts that were presented in State v. Elder.  And the legal question was whether those facts justified Officer Shutts’s “detention” of the car’s occupants.

Last week, the Iowa Court of Appeals said no.  According to the three-judge panel, “movement” inside a car with fogged-up windows does not give an officer reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  Indeed, even Officer Shutts admitted, on cross-examination, that those facts do not indicate  that “somebody was doing something wrong inside” the car (wrong meaning criminal).  The Court of Appeals also ruled that, because nothing seemed to be amiss with the car (flat tire, engine trouble, etc.), the officer could not investigate the situation under the “community caretaker” doctrine.

Iowa teenagers are breathing a sigh of relief.

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