A recent ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court effectively nullified bad U.S. Supreme Court precedent in the state. The decision was a win for privacy and demonstrates the how state-level action can undermine overreaching federal power.
The case revolved around a police search of Bion Ingram’s car that led to drug charges. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the search was considered constitutional. But instead of trying to fight the battle in federal court, Ingram’s attorneys chose to challenge the search in state court under the Iowa state constitution. Ultimately, the Iowa high court found that the search violated Article 1 Sec. 8 of the Iowa Constitution.
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.
This section is virtually identical to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but the Iowa court refused to apply the SCOTUS’ loose interpretation of the Fourth Amendment to Article 1 Sec. 8 of the Iowa Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice Brent Appel asserted that the Iowa court is the “ultimate arbiter” for the meaning of the Iowa Constitution, saying that the Iowa courts “jealously reserve the right under our state constitutional provisions to reach results different from current United States Supreme Court precedent under parallel provisions.”
We have repeatedly declined to follow the approach of the United States Supreme Court in its interpretation of what one commentator has referred to as an ever-shrinking Fourth Amendment.
Police pulled Ingram over for a burnt-out license plate light in 2015. During the stop, the sheriff deputy determined that Ingram’s registration had expired and decided to impound the car. Subsequently, a Newton Police Department officer arrived to perform an inventory search of the vehicle. During that warrantless search, the officer found a glass pipe and one gram of meth.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that an inventory search constitutes an exception to the warrant requirement as long as it complies with a “reasonable” local policy. But as an article in Forbes pointed out, “those policies are created by the very agencies that perform the searches. Nor do those policies have to be written down; they can instead be set by “custom and practice.” Appel said this gives police “virtually unlimited discretion” that undermines the fundamental protections the Fourth Amendment was intended to enshrine.
An essentially unregulated legal framework allowing wide police discretion in stopping, arresting, and conducting warrantless inventory searches of the driver’s automobile amounts to a general warrant regime that is anathema to search and seizure law.
The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Ingram’s favor. As Appel put it, the Iowa high court used the case “to restore the balance between citizens and law enforcement…by decoupling Iowa law from the winding and often surprising decisions of the United States Supreme Court.”
In effect, the Iowa Supreme Court nullified a bad U.S. Supreme Court precedent in the state and voided a court-created exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.
This is not generally how things work. Most state governments simply defer to the Supreme Court. Once the SCOTUS issues an opinion, it effectively becomes the law of the land in all 50 states. Thanks to the “incorporation doctrine,” federal courts have the power to dictate minute policy matters in every city, town and county across the entire United States.
But the Iowa court did the right thing. It interpreted its own constitution independent of SCOTUS precedent. The opinions of federal judges should have no bearing on a state case to begin with.
This demonstrates the power of state courts and state constitutions. Every state constitution has its own bill of rights. Many include provisions far more restrictive on government than the federal Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, most people automatically make a federal case out of everything. It’s important to note that Ingram would still be sitting in a jail cell today if he had taken the standard approach and sued in federal court.
Under the original constitution, the federal government was never intended to exercise control over state governments. That was left to the people of the states to handle under their own constitutions. The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights restricts federal power. The Iowa constitution’s bill of rights restricts the Iowa state government. The Iowa court got it right when it “decoupled” SCOTUS opinion from the state constitution.
Of course, state courts will make bad decisions. State governments will overstep their authority. But when that happens, it has a limited impact. When the federal government overreaches its authority, it impacts more than 300 million people in 50 states. This is why we should stop making everything into a federal case.
State legislatures and state courts can serve as a check on federal power. The tools are right there at our disposal. We just need to use them.