Iowa weigh station’s search that led to drug conviction deemed illegal

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The Iowa Supreme Court on Dec. 8 ruled that the Iowa Department of Transportation violated a truck driver's Constitutional rights by detaining a driver for too long in order to conduct what was deemed an illegal search of the driver’s rig that resulted in a charge of possession of a controlled substance.

Court documents from an appeal by driver Stephen Arrieta state that on Aug. 5, 2020, Iowa Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Officer Taran Waalkens was operating the weigh station on I-35 in Worth County when he noticed “a commercial vehicle had failed on PrePass for vehicle registration.” The truck, driven by Arrieta, stopped at the weigh station as required. Waalkens approached Arrieta and advised he was going to conduct a Level 3 inspection.

During the inspection, Waalkens discovered that the truck's VIN had been reported stolen. He then radioed to dispatch to check to see if the stolen report was still valid. Later in the inspection, Waalkens was advised by dispatch that the originating agency reported the VIN was still active as stolen, but “with it being a valid registration and a long period of time that it was probably a valid registration,” and not to “hold the driver for the stolen vehicle.” 

Waalkens also learned Arrieta was “only hauling insulation” from Minnesota to Texas, which from his experience, “wouldn’t be a productive trip for the company,” court documents added. Waalkens also found that Arrieta was not using an ELD and noted some inconsistencies in his log book entries and that his logs showed he had traveled 770 miles in exactly 11 hours the day prior to the stop. Waalkens calculated (wrongly) that Arrieta “would have averaged 77 mph during th[e] entire trip,” the state's Supreme Court opinion noted. Had he driven that many miles in that amount of time, he would have averaged 70 mph. Given this information, and considering his knowledge that “I-35 is a very popular corridor for drug trafficking,” Waalkens “decided to call for a K-9 at that point.”

Waalkens had Arrieta come into the inspection station to further inspect his logs, as Deputy Jesse Luther and K-9 Titan conducted a “free-air sniff” around the truck. Titan alerted for the presence of narcotics around the sleeper area of the truck and, after Arrieta’s consent, officers found a small bag of marijuana inside the truck.

The state charged Arrieta with possession of a controlled substance (marijuana), and operating while intoxicated. The operating while intoxicating charge was later dropped. Arrieta filed a motion to suppress evidence, but the motion was denied, and he was later found guilty of the possession charge.

Arrieta challenged the district court’s decision to deny his motion to suppress, contending:

  • Officer Waalkens lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop of his commercial vehicle “for the sole purpose” of waiting for the arrival of Deputy Luther and Titan.
  • Titan was “neither reliable nor well trained and was cued to alert” by Deputy Luther, and that Luther and Titan made physical contact with his vehicle, which constituted an unlawful search, according to Arrieta. 

The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision to deny Arrieta’s motion, and Arrieta appealed the case to the state Supreme Court.

On Dec. 8, the Iowa Supreme Court sided with Arrieta, agreeing that he “was detained beyond the time needed to complete the Level 3 inspection in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. That violation requires suppression of the subsequently discovered drugs, so we need not address Arrieta’s other arguments.”

Iowa Justice Dana Oxley, who delivered the court’s opinion, said Arrieta did not contest the validity of the stop or the inspection, but said the duration of his seizure violated his Constitutional rights. He also argued that Iowa “failed to proffer a sufficient explanation for the delay, demonstrating the officer’s improper intent to unduly prolong the inspection to allow time for a K-9 unit to arrive on the scene.”

“We conclude the stop was impermissibly extended beyond a reasonable duration, which renders it an unconstitutional seizure under the Fourth Amendment,” Oxley wrote.

Court documents show that Arrieta was pulled in for the inspection at approximately 12:35 p.m., and Waalkens met Arrieta at his truck at approximately 12:39 p.m. Waalkens requested the K-9 shortly before 1:34 p.m. -- an hour after the inspection began. It was also at 1:34 p.m. that Waalkens was informed to not detain Arrieta for the stolen vehicle. Oxley wrote that by this time, “Waalkens was done with all of his tasks except going over the inspection with the driver.” The K-9 unit didn't arrive until just before 2 p.m.

"The stolen vehicle report cannot be considered among the circumstances supporting reasonable suspicion to continue holding Arrieta because Waalkens learned the truck was not stolen 25 minutes before Titan began his sniff around the truck," Oxley said in her opinion. "Once the issue had been resolved by the call from state radio, it could no longer be used to extend the stop. By Waalkens’s own admission, the only task left before completing the inspection was reviewing the paperwork with Arrieta. There is no justification for why Waalkens delayed talking to Arrieta during the 25 minutes between resolving the discrepancy in the stolen vehicle report and Titan conducting the free air sniff. Therefore, Arrieta was improperly detained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights when the free air sniff occurred, and any evidence obtained as a result of the search should have been suppressed."

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