Question before Iowa Supreme Court: Was a defendant free to drive off from a police encounter?

by Rox Laird | September 27, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear an oral argument at the University of Iowa in a case that poses a question with an often-elusive answer under the Fourth Amendment: When does a reasonable person feel free to walk or drive away from a police encounter?

The oral argument in this case is set for 1:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at the University of Iowa College of Law. The session will be livestreamed on the Iowa Supreme Court’s YouTube Channel. [Go to On Brief’s “Cases in the Pipeline” page to read briefs filed in this case].

Jaheim Cyrus argues evidence used against him in Polk County District Court should have been suppressed because it was the product of an illegal seizure.

Cyrus was parked on a residential street in Des Moines after 9 p.m. when Officer Shawn Morgan pulled up, stopped his police cruiser in the middle of the street, and shined a spotlight toward Cyrus’ driver’s side door. The police officer turned on rear-facing warning lights on the patrol car’s light bar, exited his vehicle, and quickly approached Cyrus’ vehicle.

After smelling the odor of burnt marijuana, Morgan discovered a handgun in a search of the car. Cyrus was arrested and charged with carrying weapons and fourth-degree theft.

The Polk County District Court denied Cyrus’ motion to suppress evidence from the officer’s search as a violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the equivalent protection against unreasonable search and seizure under the Iowa Constitution. The trial court’s ruling was affirmed by the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the Iowa Supreme Court granted Cyrus’ application for further review.

The question before the Iowa Supreme Court is whether Officer Morgan’s actions amounted to a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Would a reasonable person in Cyrus’ position believe he or she was free to drive away from the encounter with the officer? If so, there was no seizure. If not, then the State must show there was reasonable suspicion and probable cause for stopping and searching the vehicle.

The Iowa Supreme Court has previously held that judges should look at the “totality of the circumstances” in such cases, in which no single condition is dispositive, to assess whether a law enforcement officer created a coercive environment.

Cyrus argues a reasonable person would not have felt free to drive away from the scene for several reasons: The rear warning lights on Officer Morgan’s cruiser were turned on; the officer trained a spotlight on Cyrus and his vehicle; Morgan quickly exited his vehicle to approach Cyrus’ car; and, the police vehicle was parked in the middle of the dead-end street, forcing a driver to pull forward, turn around, and navigate around the officer’s car.

Finally, in evaluating whether a reasonable person would feel free to drive away in this situation, Cyrus urges the Court to consider as a relevant circumstance the fact that he was a 19-year-old Black man in an age when “driving while Black” is a reality in encounters with law enforcement.

The State, in a brief filed with the Court, counters that this was not a police stop where Cyrus was constrained from leaving. Cyrus was already parked on the street, and Officer Morgan parked behind and to the side of Cyrus’ car. Nor did the officer “significantly restrain” Cyrus’ movements, the brief states.

As for factoring in Cyrus’ minority status, the State argues it would be “exceedingly difficult” for police officers, lawyers, and judges to apply a “reasonable person” test that varies depending on an individual’s unique status that could range from racial minorities to LGBTQ+ individuals.

This oral argument is one in a series of the “Court on the Road” sessions where the justices make it easier for Iowans to witness the appellate process. The Court held a similar session in Waverly Sept. 19, and will hold an evening session in Des Moines Feb. 19 and at the Drake Law School April 4.





Iowa Constitution mandates face-to-face confrontation by witness, Iowa Supreme Court rules

A defendant’s right under the Iowa Constitution to confront witnesses at trial is not satisfied by one-way video testimony where the witness testifying on camera is not able to see the defendant, the Iowa Supreme Court held in a 4-3 ruling handed down June 28. In reaching that conclusion, the Court declined to follow a U.S. Supreme Court precedent and overruled one of its own prior rulings.

April 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in nine cases during April 2024.  Opinions from April not covered elsewhere on the blog are summarized below.



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.


Related Links