A Polk County District Court has ruled that the Iowa legislature “overstepped” when it enacted a law allowing police to search garbage outside a home without a warrant.
In a November 13 order granting a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained through trash grabs, Chief Judge Michael Huppert found the 2022 law “void as inconsistent with the language of article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution as interpreted by the Iowa Supreme Court.”
LAW GIVES IOWANS “NO REASONABLE EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY IN GARBAGE”
Senate File 2296 amended the Iowa Code section on search and seizure to clarify, “It is the public policy of this state that a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in garbage placed outside of the person’s residence for waste collection in a publicly accessible area.”
Republican legislators passed the garbage search law in response to a 2021 Iowa Supreme Court decision, State of Iowa v Nicholas Dean Wright. Four justices held in that case that Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, precludes trash grabs without a warrant.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held that law enforcement are not required to obtain a search warrant for garbage left outside, the Iowa Supreme Court majority found that defendant Wright “had an expectation based on positive law that his garbage bags would be accessed only by a licensed collector under contract with the city.”
In another case from 2021, the same four justices held that a Story County deputy sheriff “acted unlawfully and thus unreasonably in seizing and searching [the defendant’s] trash without a warrant.”
When the Iowa House debated the garbage search bill in March 2022, the Republican floor manager, State Representative Steven Holt, said the measure was “necessary” because the Iowa Supreme Court had turned “decades of precedent on its head” and eliminated “one of law enforcement’s most vital tools in solving crimes.”
Democratic State Representative Mary Wolfe, a defense attorney, warned that while reasonable people may disagree over “whether Iowa citizens should have a protected liberty interest in their trash,” the Iowa Supreme Court is the final arbiter over the state constitution. “And this body does not have the legal authority to legislate that constitutionally protected liberty interest away.” To overturn a high court ruling, lawmakers would need to start the lengthy process of amending the constitution.
Wolfe’s remarks held up well.
STATE CAN’T “ENACT LEGISLATION FORBIDDEN BY THE CONSTITUTION”
Charles Aaron Amble and John Joseph Mandrachia of Des Moines face four drug-related charges, to which they have pleaded not guilty. In September, Amble’s attorney moved to suppress evidence obtained from a search of his client’s home, on the grounds that the search warrant was “based entirely upon information obtained in violation of the Defendant’s constitutional rights” through “warrantless seizure of curbside garbage.” The motion argued that the legislature “cannot exercise judicial powers and overrule a decree of a court on a constitutional issue with which it disagrees.”
The Polk County Attorney’s office had argued in its resistance that Iowa law “explicitly authorizes” warrantless searches of garbage left outside a residence. By passing the 2022 law, the legislature “altered the property rights of Iowans as it relates to trash placed for collection,” prosecutors said.
Judge Huppert’s November 13 order, enclosed in full below, rejected that reasoning. The code section altered by the garbage search law would apply to the facts of this case, if the law had been “properly enacted.” But the court found “the legislature acted in violation of the constitutional roles of the legislative and judicial branches” when passing the law.
It is clear from a plain reading of the statute that the legislature intended to do far more than simply clarify the property rights of a resident in his or her garbage, as suggested by the state. It addressed what is or is not a citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy, what are to be considered constitutionally protected papers and effects, and dictates when a warrantless search can occur. All of these subjects derive from article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution,4 a source whose meaning is left to the courts as the final arbiter.
Judge Huppert found it it “obvious” that the legislature disagreed with the Iowa Supreme Court’s holdings “and simply elected to vacate those constitutional pronouncements by legislative fiat.” However, the Iowa Constitution does not vest the legislature with “power to enact legislation forbidden by the constitution.”
While courts are obliged to give “respectful consideration” to legislative language, that deference “does not mean that the legislature can usurp the court’s final authority on what is and what is not constitutional.”
As a result, the legislature overstepped when it passed §808.16 in the aftermath of Wright, Hahn and Kuuttila. That legislation is considered void as inconsistent with the language of article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution as interpreted by the Iowa Supreme Court. Iowa Const. […] As there is no dispute as to the factual background at issue in these cases, and more specifically that it comes squarely within the holdings in Wright and its progeny, the warrantless trash grabs were improper and the resulting search warrant equally lacking.
The upshot is: “All of the evidence obtained from the trash grabs from the defendants’ residence and the ensuing search warrant shall not be admissible at trial.”
Assuming the state appeals this District Court ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court may soon revisit this question. Since the high court ruled on trash grabs in 2021, Justice Brent Appel (who was part of the 4-3 majority) retired. It’s not clear whether his successor, Justice David May, would side with the majority or the dissenters on this question.
UPDATE: Andrew Mertens, executive director of the Iowa Association for Justice, provided the following statement to Bleeding Heartland.
Judge Huppert’s ruling was inevitable, it is not the legislature’s job to interpret the Constitution. What’s ironic is that the proponents of warrantless searches of our private property actually hurt their cause by passing this unconstitutional bill in 2022. Both sides of this debate knew the Supreme Court would have an opportunity to revisit this precedent soon, as state law enforcement was eager to challenge Wright after some turnover on the courts. Now, the Supreme Court will be considering their own precedent in the Wright ruling against the backdrop of an overstepping legislature who brazenly attempted to override the constitution with a statute. Judge Huppert got it right, as this bill should have never been passed, or signed. The legislature should have let the process play out on its own.
Appendix: Full text of Polk County District Court Chief Judge Michael Huppert’s November 13 order in State v Amble