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Iowa Supreme Court will go on the road Sept. 23 to hear case involving police search of Lyft passenger

by Rox Laird | August 25, 2021

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in a criminal appeal when it makes its first post-Covid trip outside the Judicial Branch Building for an oral argument in Oskaloosa on Sept. 23. A key issue in the case is whether a passenger in the vehicle operated by a ride-hailing service such as Lyft or Uber may be ordered to exit the vehicle and searched by police during a traffic stop.

The justices will hear arguments in State v. Williams, where the defendant presents a challenge to a Des Moines police officer’s warrantless search of a Lyft passenger following a traffic stop, which resulted in a charge against the passenger, Kahalen Williams, of being a felon in possession of a weapon.

The Polk County District Court denied Williams’ motion to suppress evidence obtained during the search, including a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun in Williams’ coat pocket discovered by an officer during a pat-down of Williams’ body. Williams was subsequently found guilty of the firearms charge.

In his appeal before the Iowa Court of Appeals, Williams made three arguments: 1) the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct the pat-down search; 2) his admission to the officer that he had a firearm in his possession was made without first receiving a Miranda warning; and 3) the court should decline to follow the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Maryland v. Wilson, which held that “an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court, holding there was no Miranda violation and that the pat-down search did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the police officer had reasonable suspicion to believe Williams was armed and dangerous. The court did not address Williams’ challenge to application of Wilson because the question of trial court error was not properly preserved by the appellant.

The Iowa Supreme Court accepted Williams’ application for further review of the Court of Appeals ruling.

Williams makes two arguments to the Supreme Court:

First, that error was preserved for appeal on his argument that the federal Wilson ruling does not apply to the protections set forth in the Iowa Constitution’s version of the Fourth Amendment. Williams argues that his trial counsel cited the state constitution in arguing that Wilson was “bad law” as applied to passengers in Lyft vehicles.

Second, even assuming the police officer had the authority to order Williams out of the vehicle in which he was a backseat passenger, he did not have reasonable suspicion to conduct a pat-down search for weapons under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio.

Williams specifically urges the Iowa Supreme Court to reject the “bright line” rule established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Wilson that passengers traveling in a vehicle stopped for a traffic violation may be ordered by police to exit the vehicle and searched during the traffic stop.

“Requiring a reasonable and articulable belief that the passenger is engaging in criminal activity or armed and presently dangerous is consistent with Iowa’s respect for individual rights under article I Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution,” Williams argues.

The State, in a brief filed with the Court arguing that the District Court ruling should be affirmed, responds that the rule advocated by Williams “is not feasible in practice when split second decisions as to present danger must be made” by police officers.

The oral argument in State v. Williams will begin at 7 p.m., Sept. 23, at Oskaloosa High School’s George Daily Auditorium.

The Iowa Supreme Court is also scheduled to go on the road to hear oral arguments at the University of Iowa Law School on Oct. 8, and at Drake Law School on March 31, 2022. It also will hear arguments during a special evening session at the Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines on Feb. 21, 2022.

 

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