UPDATES & ANALYSIS

9.15

Iowa Supreme Court to hear a case in Waverly involving a search prompted by a drug-detection dog

by Rox Laird | September 15, 2023

Did a law-enforcement officer step across a constitutional line when he touched the cab of a semi-tractor, seeming to direct a drug-detection dog where to sniff for the presence of potentially illegal drugs?

That is the question before the Iowa Supreme Court that will be argued Sept. 19 at Waverly-Shell Rock High School. The oral argument is one of a number to be held this term in communities around the state as the justices take the appellate process out of the Judicial Branch Building to give more Iowans the opportunity to witness the appellate process.

The Sept. 19 argument will begin at 7 p.m. in the Waverly-Shell Rock High School Auditorium, 1405 4th Ave. SW in Waverly. [Go to On Brief’s “Cases in the Pipeline” page to read briefs filed in this case.]

In the case to be argued Sept. 19, Stephen Arrieta asks the Iowa Supreme Court to vacate a Jan. 11 Iowa Court of Appeals ruling affirming the Worth District Court’s denial of Arrieta’s motion to suppress evidence produced as a result of the drug-sniffing dog that led to Arrieta’s conviction of possession of marijuana.

Arrieta was detained at an Interstate 35 Iowa weigh station by an Iowa Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Officer who suspected the truck might be transporting illegal substances based on discrepancies in the driver’s log book. A Worth County sheriff’s deputy was called to the scene to search the truck using a narcotics-detection dog.

Based on the dog’s alert near the cab’s sleeper compartment, the deputy searched the cab with Arrieta’s permission, leading to discovery of a small bag containing marijuana inside the truck.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Arrieta argues the sheriff’s deputy violated his right to be protected from an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its equivalent in the Iowa Constitution.

Although courts have previously held that “free-air sniff” by a drug-detection dog does not constitute a search for Fourth Amendment purposes, Arrieta argues a Fourth Amendment violation occurred in his case because the drug-dog’s handler trespassed onto the truck when he touched the seams of the truck, directing the dog to sniff the area, and when the drug dog made physical contact by placing his paws on the truck in order to sniff the area.

In making his case that this was an unconstitutional search by trespassing, Arrieta cites the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in State v. Wright, which held that an Iowa police officer conducted an unreasonable search and seizure when he physically trespassed on a suspect’s property to conduct a warrantless search of the suspect’s trash left out for collection.

The State, in a brief filed by the Iowa Attorney General, argues that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred in this case because the drug-detection dog had “alerted” to an odor near the truck’s sleeping compartment before the officer touched the truck. This, the State argues, provided probable cause for a search of the truck.

“Because probable cause existed prior to the physical contact of the commercial vehicle” by the dog and its handler, the subsequent search was allowable, the Attorney General’s brief states. “The physical contact was not an unlawful search,” the brief states, and the “Court should decline Arrieta’s invitation to find that mere physical contact with the exterior of a vehicle constitutes a trespass.”

In addition to the Waverly session, the Court will hold what it calls “Court on the Road” sessions in other locations, including the University of Iowa Law School Sept. 29 and Drake Law School April 4. The Court will also hear oral arguments in an evening session in the Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines Feb. 19.

 

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