Search and seizure on Iowa’s roads

Editorial Board

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

—Fourth Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Last week, Iowa State Patrol officers erected signs on Interstate 80 in eastern Iowa that read “Narcotics Enforcement Ahead.”

Then, plainclothes officers waited and watched as cars pulled over and drivers got out to dump marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine at a rest stop.

According to a story in The Des Moines Register, the officers stopped about 250 people and arrested about 100.

However, University of Iowa law professor Jim Tromkovicz said the arrests may amount to an unconstitutional search and seizure.

Tromkovicz said simply pulling over in front of a sign would not constitute probable cause, as stated in the Fourth Amendment.

Randall Wilson, legal director for the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, agreed with Tromkovicz, saying the signs were unfair by making “a person panic regardless if they’re innocent or guilty.”

Searching without a warrant or seizing property without probable cause are serious offenses, and law enforcement officers should be carefully monitored at all times for that sort of unconstitutional behavior.

But the actions of the Iowa State Patrol did not constitute an unreasonable search or seizure.

How is it unreasonable to arrest individuals after watching them dump out illegal drugs?

The motorists may have been fooled by the signs, but their possessions and subsequent dumpings were still against the law. And as long as the officers only searched the cars of those they saw with narcotics, the tactics were reasonable, constitutional and, apparently, successful.

The signs were not intended to scare anyone, and they certainly shouldn’t have made any innocent person panic. They were an illusion, but not an unconstitutional one.

In this case, the Iowa State Patrol was on the right side of the law. They should be commended, not sued.