by Marianne Gasaway
The Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling last week banning police from searching people’s uncollected trash without a warrant. The decision came as the result of a Clear Lake case in which a police officer searched trash left for collection by a person suspected of dealing drugs.
On a 4-3 vote, the court ruled that officers commit unreasonable search and seizure under the Iowa Constitution when they look for evidence of crimes in trash left for collection outside homes. The ruling overturned Iowa courts’ long adherence to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the search of garbage outside one’s home.
“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,” wrote Justice Christopher McDonald in the majority opinion.
State of Iowa vs. Nicholas Dean Wright was submitted to the court Sept. 17, 2020 and the decision was filed June 18, 2021.
The suit maintained that because the City of Clear Lake limits who may access and collect solid waste to contracted collectors, Wright was subjected to illegal searches and seizure by Police Officer Brandon Heinz, who on three occasions went into the alley behind Wright’s residence to take his garbage bags and search through them to “obtain information about what Mr. Wright may have been doing inside (his) house.” More specifically, Heinz was “looking for anything related to drug activity,” court documents state. Heinz was acting upon information provided by Deputy Tammy Cavett.
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