Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Will Iowa Court chart a new course in boating case?

by Rox Laird | August 22, 2016

When the Iowa Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a drunken boating case next month, it will feel like déjà vu.

That’s because the court first heard oral arguments in the case a year ago, and it sat on the court’s back burner for several months. In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling (Birchfield v. North Dakota) regarding the constitutionality of state-mandated breathalyzer and blood-alcohol tests in drunken driving prosecutions.

So the Iowa Supreme Court put the drunken boating case (State of Iowa v. Dale Dean Pettijohn) on hold and ordered the parties to submit new briefs to the court addressing the impact – if any – of the Birchfield decision on the Iowa case. The briefs were submitted in August, and now Pettijohn’s appeal is set for reargument Sept. 7.

In his initial appeal, Pettijohn claimed his 2014 conviction for boating while intoxicated should be vacated because the state water patrol officer’s rationale for stopping his boat and Iowa’s implied consent for a breath test led to illegal searches barred by both the U.S. and Iowa constitutions.

The Iowa Attorney General in its supplemental brief for the state argues that Pettijohn’s cause is not helped by the Birchfield decision. The U.S. Supreme Court in that case ruled that while states must, under the Fourth Amendment, obtain a warrant before ordering blood-alcohol tests in drunken driving prosecutions, that is not the case for breath tests, which are less personally invasive.

Moreover, the state pointed out, the Birchfield ruling reaffirmed the legality of implied-consent laws – such as Iowa’s – that impose civil penalties for drivers who refuse to submit to breath tests during drunken driving stops.

Pettijohn, for his part, argues in his supplemental brief that the Birchfield ruling does not affect his case either way. Rather, he contends there is a legal distinction between boating on navigable waters and driving on public roads.

Unlike driving, which is a privilege granted by the state, he argues that piloting a boat on Iowa’s waterways is a right that does not require a state-issued license. Thus, he says, there is no implied consent by boaters to warrantless breath tests in exchange for the privilege of having a driver’s license.

Even if the Iowa Supreme Court does not buy that argument, Pettijohn said the Court should follow its tradition of parting ways with the U.S. Supreme Court and hold that warrantless breath tests for boaters violate the Iowa Constitution’s version of the Fourth Amendment. Whether they are testing breath or blood levels, he says law officers have ample opportunity to first obtain a search warrant from a judge.

Whether the Iowa Court goes down that road (or channel), the ruling likely will focus more on the original arguments in Pettijohn’s appeal than what the U.S. Supreme Court had to say in its Birchfield ruling.



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On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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