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Iowa Supreme court finds in favor of man whose car was searched without a warrant and $33,000 seized by cops

Iowa State Patrol, looking for drugs
Iowa State Patrol, looking for drugs

DES MOINES – The Iowa Supreme Court handed down a ruling Friday that could make it more difficult for cops to search vehicles without a warrant and seize property after it ruled in favor of a man whose car was searched by a state trooper during a traffic stop due to suspicion, which led to the seizure of $33,000.

This forfeiture case asked the Iowa Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of a narcotics dog sniff that occurred after the completion of about a twenty-five-minute traffic stop on Interstate 80. Appellant Robert Pardee was a passenger in an out-of-state vehicle that had been pulled over for mundane traffic violations as part of a criminal interdiction effort. The state trooper, in addition to preparing warnings for the traffic violations, conducted extensive questioning of both the driver and Pardee. Following that questioning, the trooper initially said the occupants were free to go, but then decided to detain them while a narcotics dog was called in. The narcotics dog alerted on the car, and a subsequent search of the vehicle uncovered small amounts of marijuana, over $33,000 in cash, and evidence of marijuana dealing.

In the ensuing forfeiture proceeding for the $33,000, Pardee claimed the cash was his, but the district court denied Pardee’s motion to suppress based on res judicata from Pardee’s criminal proceeding, where Pardee was ultimately acquitted. The district court then ordered the money forfeited. The court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress after reaching the merits of the motion.

The Iowa Supreme Court granted further review of the case, leading to the decision Friday in which the court of appeals decision was vacated and the district court decision was reversed and remanded back to lower courts.

Pardee maintained that res judicata (which prevents a party from relitigating a claim or issue that has already been determined by a final judgment) does not apply and that the stop violated the United States and Iowa Constitutions because: (1) pretextual traffic stops are unconstitutional, (2) the State’s targeting of out-of-state vehicles in its criminal interdiction efforts is a violation of equal protection, (3)the trooper unconstitutionally prolonged and expanded the stop beyond what was necessary to address the traffic violations, and (4) the narcotics dog and its handler were not shown to be reliable.

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed that res judicata does not apply and further held that
the trooper prolonged the stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment beyond what was necessary to address the observed traffic violations. Accordingly, without reaching the remainder of Pardee’s arguments, we reverse the denial of his motion to suppress and remand for further proceedings.

Facts and Procedural History in the case:

On June 13, 2012, shortly before 9:30 a.m., Eric Vander Weil, an Iowa State Trooper, was parked on the median of Interstate 80 watching westbound traffic. He was participating in a criminal interdiction effort focused on out-of-state vehicles.

Trooper Vander Weil saw a silver Toyota with California plates go past. The driver had his hand on his face and did not look at the trooper as he passed by. Trooper Vander Weil decided to follow the car.

As he approached the moving vehicle in his patrol car, Trooper Vander Weil observed the Toyota slowing down to sixty-five miles per hour, below the seventy-miles-per-hour posted speed limit. Pulling alongside the moving vehicle, Vander Weil also noticed that the driver looked over at him, then looked away and didn’t look back at him again. In addition, Vander Weil saw the driver with his hands now at the ten and two positions on the steering wheel. Vander Weil slowed his own patrol car and pulled in behind the silver Toyota.

At this point, Vander Weil saw that the top portion of the right taillight on the car was not working. He also observed the Toyota following closely behind a semi. Vander Weil noted the existence of these two traffic violations and decided to pull over the Toyota.

Once the Toyota and the patrol car were both stopped on the shoulder of the highway, Trooper Vander Weil walked up to the Toyota and informed the driver of the two traffic violations. He noticed that the Toyota still had its right turn signal on. Trooper Vander Weil stated that he was just going to issue warnings for the violations and there would be no fine. He asked the driver, John Saccento, to provide his license, registration, and insurance and to accompany him to the patrol car.1 He also asked the passenger, Robert Pardee, to provide identification.

Trooper Vander Weil felt that both Saccento and Pardee were nervous when he spoke to them. Pardee had a “carotid artery pulsating in his neck.” Trooper Vander Weil also detected the strong odor of air freshener and saw a small can of air freshener on the floor of the car. Additionally, he observed other items in the car, such as a bag of trash and a sleeping bag on the back seat, which led him to believe the men were “traveling hard, not taking any time to throw away their trash and make any unnecessary stops.”

Saccento told Trooper Vander Weil that he was moving back to New Jersey from California. He explained that he was making the move in multiple trips and that he was currently returning from his second trip from California to New Jersey. Trooper Vander Weil questioned Saccento—now seated in the patrol car—why he wouldn’t just rent a U- Haul to avoid the time and expense of repeated trips. Saccento responded that it was “more fun to drive” and that he and Pardee had made stops on the way. Trooper Vander Weil continued to question Saccento about where planned to work in New Jersey (Saccento said Prudential Financial Services), what part of New Jersey he was moving to (Saccento said Berkeley Heights, where his family lives), who was with Saccento in the car (Saccento said “a friend”—although Trooper Vander Weil of course had Pardee’s Arizona driver’s license), when he had made the prior trip (Saccento said Memorial Day weekend), how long the drive was from California to New Jersey (Saccento said about fifty hours), and whether Saccento’s friend was still living in Arizona (Saccento said yes). After four minutes of questioning along these lines, Trooper Vander Weil called in a warrants check on Saccento and Pardee. Meanwhile, the questioning continued. The warrants check came back within three minutes, showing that Pardee had a warrant but not for an extraditable offense.

Trooper Vander Weil continued to question Saccento seated next to him in the patrol car. He also started to complete the warnings. After Trooper Vander Weil and the driver had been in the patrol car about sixteen minutes, Vander Weil printed out the warnings and told the driver he would be “right back” after he returned Pardee’s driver’s license.

Trooper Vander Weil then proceeded to question Pardee. Pardee gave answers that were generally consistent with those of Saccento about the reason for their trip, Saccento’s planned employment in New Jersey, the number of previous trips they had made between California and New Jersey, and how long they had known each other. Pardee was also uncertain as to when they had left California. He stated that he supposed they had left California on this trip four days ago, immediately after relating that it usually took four to five days to get from California to New Jersey. Trooper Vander Weil felt that this “contradiction” was an indication that “Pardee’s timeline was messed up.” Following about three minutes of questioning Pardee, Trooper Vander Weil returned to his patrol car and had Saccento sign for the warnings. At 9:55 a.m., Trooper Vander Weil told Saccento he was free to go.

However, instead of leaving, Saccento asked Trooper Vander Weil, “Do you mind if I like, just hang out here for a minute and stretch my legs?” Trooper Vander Weil said this was “no problem” but he then asked Saccento if he would consent to answering more questions, which Saccento did. Trooper Vander Weil then began asking pointed questions about whether Saccento had “anything illegal in the car,” “any large amounts of marijuana,” “large amounts of cocaine,” “large amounts of heroin,” “large amounts of methamphetamine,” or “large amounts of money.” Saccento answered no to all of these questions.

Trooper Vander Weil next asked Saccento if it would be okay if he searched the car. Saccento responded he would prefer not to have a search because he wanted to get going. Trooper Vander Weil stated, “Well, you don’t have to let me to, I mean it’s up to you.” Yet he then asked if he could have a dog come and sniff the vehicle. Saccento again declined the request.

Trooper Vander Weil advised Saccento, “Well if you don’t want to wait for the dog, and you don’t want to let me search, I’m going to detain you, and I am going to call for a dog to come sniff your car . . . . Either way I am going to run the dog.” Several minutes later, the K-9 unit arrived, and the dog alerted on the vehicle.

Subsequent searches of the car revealed small amounts of marijuana in the center console, in the backseat, and in the trunk. In addition, a computer bag on the front passenger seat contained $33,100 in cash. The search also uncovered handwritten notes appearing to reflect sales of marijuana. Saccento and Pardee were arrested and thereafter charged with possession of marijuana in violation of Iowa Code section 124.401(5) (2011). On September 4, the State also filed a forfeiture notice under Iowa Code section 809A.8 with respect to the $33,100 cash.

Lower courts could decide that Pardee would get his $33,100 returned to him.

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