IOWA CITY, Iowa – A divided Iowa Supreme Court on Friday banned police from searching people’s uncollected trash without a warrant, outlawing an investigative technique that had been used for decades.
The court ruled 4-3 that officers commit an unreasonable search and seizure under the Iowa Constitution when they look for evidence of crimes in trash left for collection outside homes.
The tactic amounts to an unconstitutional trespass on private property and violates citizens’ expectations of privacy, especially in cities that have ordinances barring residents from accessing others’ trash, Justice Christopher McDonald wrote for the majority.
“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,” he wrote, adding that “garbage contains intimate and private details of life.”
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.
With Friday’s ruling, Iowa joins a small number of other states that have limited trash searches by holding that their state constitutions provide greater protections than the U.S. Constitution against warrantless searches. They include Oregon, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, New Mexico and New Jersey, according to Friday's decision and news reports.
In a sign of the ruling’s impact, the court sent two cases of people convicted of drug crimes based partly on trash searches back to lower courts to determine whether the evidence should be thrown out.
Dissenting justices, including Chief Justice Susan Christensen, warned that the decision was out of step with the vast majority of states and outlawed a tactic used to gather evidence of drug manufacturing and dealing. They said people have no expectations of privacy when they put their trash on the curb.
The majority’s reasoning — that officers can’t use investigative techniques that would be illegal for private citizens — is nonsensical and calls into question the legality of several other law enforcement practices, dissenting justices said.
Christensen said the reasoning would invite legal challenges against officers who make warrantless traffic stops, search private property and seize guns under emergency or other circumstances that have long been allowed by courts.
“Unfortunately, our state law enforcement officials are now left with a guess-and-see approach to many actions previously considered lawful, undermining public safety in the process,” Christensen wrote.
The ruling came in the case of a Clear Lake man whom a police officer was investigating on suspicion of dealing drugs. The officer twice rummaged through the man's trash in a public alley outside his home and found items that later tested positive for morphine and cocaine, and several pounds of poppy seeds.
The officer used that information to obtain a warrant to search the home, where police found a small amount of marijuana and Vyvanse, a prescription drug for which he did not have a prescription. The man was convicted of misdemeanors and sentenced to two days in jail.
The second case impacted Friday involved a Dixon man who was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. His home was searched pursuant to a warrant after deputies rummaged his trash and found evidence of marijuana purchases from a dispensary in Colorado.
Dissenting Justice Thomas Waterman said trash searches can help shut down meth labs and other “societal scourges.” He said banning them in state investigations would lead to more federal drug prosecutions, which carry longer prison sentences.
“Offenders facing federal time without parole likely won’t view today’s decision as advancing their civil liberties,” he said.