Capital Clicks

Iowa Supreme Court: Police can’t search trash without warrants

By: - June 18, 2021 3:51 pm

(Photo via Commonwealth of Massachusetts)

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected and updated. The previous version incorrectly characterized the court’s ruling.

The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday said police can’t search a suspect’s trash without a warrant.

In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled a police search of garbage left outside of homes for collection is an “unreasonable and thus unconstitutional seizure and search” unless a judge had approved a warrant. 

The ruling overturns a previous precedent and affects two current cases. In the first, police officers in Cerro Gordo County searched the trash of Nicholas Wright of Clear Lake to attain a warrant to search his home. According to the case, police searched the trash — which was located in a public alley— twice. 

In the majority opinion, Justice Christopher McDonald wrote it is illegal for officers to use investigative techniques that are illegal for private citizens. 

“The mere fact that a man is an officer, where of high or low degree, gives him no more right than is possessed by the ordinary private citizen to break in upon the privacy of a home and subject,” he wrote.

The decision affects not only Wright’s case, but also that of Ryan Hahn of Scott County. Hahn appealed a district court’s decision to deny his motion to suppress evidence found in a search of trash by local law enforcement.

Hahn was arrested in September 2018 after sheriff’s deputies were tipped by the Iowa Department of Human Services. The tip sent to Scott County Deputy Sheriff Daniel Furlong noted “suspected marijuana and pill usage” by Hahn and Danielle Grimm. 

Following the tip, Furlong and Deputy Eric Burton conducted a trash pull at Hahn’s residence. The two found a receipt from a marijuana dispensary in Colorado. The findings led to a search warrant of Hanh’s and Grimm’s residence where the deputies found marijuana and other illegal substances.

Hanh sought to suppress the evidence, arguing the search and seizure of his trash violated his constitutional rights. The district court denied his appeal.

The court returned the two cases to lower courts to decide whether the evidence should be thrown out in the case.

Justices Brent Appel, Dana Oxley, and Matthew McDermott signed on to the opinion on Friday. Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman dissented. 

In the dissent, Christensen wrote she would affirm the district court’s judgment. “In my opinion, the Iowa Constitution does not provide greater protections than the Fourth Amendment,” she wrote in regards to warrantless searches of trash. 

The dissent said garbage is not “a constitutionally protected ‘effect.'” This was the reason why Christensen said she “cannot conclude the officer violated Wright’s search and seizure protections.” 

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.