DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision on Friday, ruled that warrantless searches of trash cans outside people’s homes constituted an unreasonable search and seizure.
The defendant, Nicholas Dean Wright, who resides in Clear Lake, appealed a judgment and sentence entered on his convictions of possession of marijuana and possession of Vyvanse. He contended the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained from a warrantless search of his garbage containers set out for trash collection.
Justice Christopher McDonald, writing for the majority, stated that Clear Lake Police Officer Brandon Heinz “on three occasions, during the dark of night, without probable cause or a warrant, went into the alley behind Wright’s residence to take Wright’s garbage bags and search through them to ‘obtain information about what Mr. Wright may have been doing inside [his] house.'”
Probable cause for a search warrant Heinz applied for was predicated on the evidence obtained from the warrantless seizure and search of Wright’s trash bags. The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision to deny a motion to suppress evidence because the trash cans were in an alley, not on Wright’s property.
Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable seizures and searches shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue but on probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons and things to be seized.”
“(W)e have long held that a peace officer engaged in general criminal investigation acted unreasonably and unlawfully when he trespassed against a citizen without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause,” McDonald wrote.
He cited case law that demonstrated the prohibition of unlawful searches and seizures extended outside the home. Both the Iowa Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court had moved away from historical seizure and search jurisprudence but has returned to that interpretation.
“This court and the Supreme Court’s return to the historical understandings of seizure and search jurisprudence, to some degree, was born of necessity. Current Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is a mess,” McDonald stated.
“A survey of the relevant text, history, and precedents shows article I, section 8’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures was tied to common law trespass. In light of that understanding, we hold a peace officer engaged in general criminal investigation acts unreasonably under article I, section 8 when the peace officer commits a trespass against a citizen’s house, papers, or effects without first obtaining a warrant based ‘on probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons and things to be seized,'” he wrote.
McDonald found that Wright did not abandon “all right, title, and interest in the property” because abandonment entails relinquishing ownership interests without regard of who becomes the next owner. Clear Lake city ordinance says it is unlawful for anyone other than a licensed contractor under a contract with the city to remove garbage.
“In moving his trash to the alley for collection, Wright agreed only to convey his property to a licensed collector,” he wrote. “Wright would have the right to retrieve the property prior to collection and the right to exclude all others from rummaging through his garbage bins prior to collection.”
“Of course, this is not to say article I, section 8 rises and falls based on a particular municipal law. Municipal laws, like all positive laws, are merely one form of evidence of the limits of a peace officer’s authority to act without a warrant,” McDonald added. “Article I, section 8 precludes a peace officer from engaging in general criminal investigation that constitutes a trespass against a citizen’s house, papers, or effects. No department of the government can circumvent this constitutional minimum.”
He wrote that police efficiency isn’t justification for violating a person’s constitutional rights.
“We do not question the utility of warrantless trash grabs for the purposes of law enforcement, but the utility of warrantless activity is not the issue under our constitution,” McDonald wrote.
McDonald was joined by Justices Dana Oxley, Matthew McDermott, and Brent Appel. Appel wrote a concurring opinion because he disagreed with McDonald’s application of constitutional history, making an originalist argument, even though he agreed with McDonald’s findings.
Chief Justice Susan Christensen dissented and was joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield.
“The Iowa Constitution does not provide greater protections than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution for the warrantless search of garbage set out for collection in a publicly accessible area such that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his garbage. Additionally, the defendant’s garbage is not a constitutionally protected ‘effect’ under the Federal and State Constitutions, so I cannot conclude the officer violated Wright’s search and seizure protections by retrieving Wright’s garbage,” she wrote.
Christensen noted that Wright did not retain control of his garbage and that Heinz never left the publicly accessible alley to collect the trash.
She noted that the majority’s opinion “flies in the face of the United States Supreme Court and calls into question the constitutionality of many of our laws currently allowing law enforcement officers to take certain actions during investigations that private citizens cannot take.”
Christensen pointed out that federal law enforcement and law enforcement in a majority of states can lawfully conduct warrantless searches of garbage set out for collection.
Waterman wrote his own dissenting opinion that Christensen and Mansfield joined.
“The majority’s new de facto test—if a private citizen can’t search discarded trash, the police can’t do it either—has never been recognized by any court or dissent in the country,” he said. “That is not surprising. The test makes little sense. Police officers can do many things private citizens cannot.”
“The majority is guilty of faux originalism, ‘living’ constitutionalism, and ahistorical analysis. The majority finds no support for its newly concocted test in the Federalist Papers or the debates at the Iowa constitutional convention. Those sources are neither confronted nor consulted to test its false premise that law enforcement historically could not search garbage,” Waterman argued.
Mansfield also wrote a separate dissenting opinion that Christensen and Waterman joined.
“To me, this case begins and ends with the syllogism that trash is trash. It is nobody’s property; it has been voluntarily abandoned. Nicholas Wright put his two garbage cans out for collection next to a public alley without lids on them. If a private citizen had pulled something out of those cans, Wright would have no cause of action against that citizen,” he wrote.
Read the majority opinion, concurrent opinion, and dissenting opinions below:190180_13B0B1758D38D