State v. Hunt, 20-1595

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation974 N.W.2d 493
Docket Number20-1595
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellant, v. Earnest Jones HUNT Jr., Appellee.
Decision Date20 May 2022

974 N.W.2d 493

STATE of Iowa, Appellant,
Earnest Jones HUNT Jr., Appellee.

No. 20-1595

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted March 23, 2022
Filed May 20, 2022

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Zachary Miller, Assistant Attorney General, for appellant.

Martha J. Lucey, State Appellate Defender, and Bradley M. Bender, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellee.

McDermott, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which Christensen, C.J., and Waterman, Mansfield, McDonald, and Oxley, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed a dissent.

McDERMOTT, Justice.

974 N.W.2d 495

May a police officer seize a concealed package from someone's pocket during a pat-down for weapons if the officer determines—through the officer's sense of touch—that the packaging is consistent with drugs of some sort, but the officer can't determine the precise type of drugs in the packaging? This case presents this court's first review of a district court decision addressing what has become known as the "plain feel" doctrine. The district court held that the officer's confessed inability to discern the type of drugs in the packaging before removing them from the person's pocket—and thus an inability to discern whether the substances were even drugs at all—required suppressing the evidence. The court of appeals reversed. We granted the defendant's application for further review.


Earnest Hunt, Jr. was a "person of interest" in the investigation of a shooting in Dubuque. The day after the shooting, Officer Chad Leitzen saw Hunt riding in the passenger seat of a Chevy Impala moving through downtown Dubuque. Following the Impala in an unmarked car, Leitzen saw the Impala make a left turn without signaling and stopped it. He approached the Impala on the passenger (Hunt's) side with his gun drawn but not trained on Hunt. Leitzen directed Hunt to place his hands on the dashboard and began asking questions. While responding, Hunt removed his hands from the dashboard, prompting Leitzen to command Hunt to keep his hands on the dash. Leitzen described Hunt as acting "extremely nervous," speaking quickly, and asking several times whether he was under arrest.

When Hunt again removed his hands from the dash without permission, Leitzen told Hunt to get out of the car and that he was being detained in handcuffs because his behavior was making Leitzen nervous. Leitzen asked Hunt for permission to search him. Hunt refused. Leitzen then told Hunt that Leitzen would pat him down for weapons.

While patting Hunt down, Leitzen (according to his later testimony) "immediately felt small plastic or small hardballs, packaged balls which were inside of a plastic bag" in Hunt's sweatshirt pocket. Leitzen said that he could "hear the crunch of the plastic bag" and could feel the plastic bag and the individual hard packages inside the bag. The small individual packages he felt in Hunt's pocket were, according to Leitzen, "invariably how cocaine, crack cocaine, or heroin are packaged for sale in Dubuque." Leitzen testified that it was "immediately apparent" that the objects were illegal drugs and that he didn't manipulate or squeeze the package within Hunt's pocket to determine what it was. Leitzen removed the drugs from Hunt's pocket. In looking at the packages, Leitzen believed that they contained drugs, but he still couldn't discern what type. He told Hunt, "Now you're being arrested for the drugs," and placed Hunt under arrest.

974 N.W.2d 496

Leitzen admitted that he couldn't specifically identify the type of drugs in the packaging based on the pat-down. The packaging led him to believe it was heroin, powder cocaine, or crack cocaine, but he couldn't determine for sure which one. After he removed the bags from Hunt's pocket, Leitzen manipulated the bags to try to figure out what the substance was. Bodycam recordings from the scene show Leitzen touching and looking at the small bags trying to determine the substance. He stated that "one of the bags felt like it was very squared off," which was inconsistent with the usual feel of crack cocaine.

Hunt was charged with possession with intent to manufacture or deliver forty grams or less of cocaine base—commonly known as "crack"—under Iowa Code section 124.401(1)(c )(3) (2019). He moved to suppress the evidence of the drugs, arguing that the police seized the drugs in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution.

At the suppression hearing, Leitzen testified that he'd worked as a police officer for eighteen years, and for seven of those years worked in a drug task force. He testified based on his experience that in Dubuque, "powder cocaine, crack cocaine, and heroin are packaged in the corner of sandwich baggies, just twisted into a knot and tied into small circulars from the corner of a plastic bag." By comparison, he testified that in Dubuque, "almost without exception, methamphetamine is packaged in small Ziploc-type gem baggies" and that "marijuana can be packaged in numerous ways." Leitzen described the different textures of powder and crack cocaine, with powder cocaine having (unsurprisingly) a powder texture and crack cocaine having a more crystallized or rock-like texture.

The district court suppressed the evidence, finding that "[t]he State has not met its burden of showing that there was probable cause to believe that Defendant had drugs in his pocket." The district court elaborated that the item in Hunt's pocket "could have been anything." The court reasoned that "Leitzen's testimony that he knew it was drugs lacked sufficient explanation as to how and why he knew that to be true," particularly since "Leitzen was not sure of the nature of the substance in the bags even after he had removed them and was examining them by feel and sight."

The State applied for discretionary appellate review. Our court granted the application for discretionary review, stayed the district court proceedings, and transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals reversed the district court's suppression ruling, determining it sufficient under the plain-feel exception to the warrant requirement that Leitzen believed the package contained heroin, powder cocaine, or crack cocaine despite not knowing which one, and remanded the case. We granted Hunt's application for further review.


Because Hunt's motion to suppress asserts a violation of his constitutional rights, our review is de novo, which means that we will independently evaluate the record in the case. State v. Hillery , 956 N.W.2d 492, 498 (Iowa 2021). "We give deference to the district court's fact findings because of that court's ability to assess the credibility of the witnesses," but "we are not bound by those findings." State v. Carter , 696 N.W.2d 31, 36 (Iowa 2005).

Both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution grant

974 N.W.2d 497

people a right of protection against unreasonable searches and seizures of "their persons, houses, papers, and effects." U.S. Const. amend. IV ; Iowa Const. art. I, § 8. The Fourth Amendment's protections apply to the states based on the Fourteenth Amendment. McDonald v. City of Chicago , 561 U.S. 742, 761, 130 S.Ct. 3020, 177 L.Ed.2d 894 (2010). These rights safeguard people against warrantless searches and seizures by the government, with carefully drawn exceptions.

In Terry v. Ohio , the Supreme Court held that a law enforcement officer may pat-down a suspect without violating the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches if the officer "has reason to believe that he is dealing with an armed and dangerous individual, regardless of whether he has probable cause to arrest the individual for a crime." 392 U.S. 1, 27, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). The officer must provide "specific reasonable inferences" to justify the pat-down; a "hunch" isn't enough. Id.

Hunt doesn't contest the basis for the traffic stop, nor does he contest Leitzen's ability to perform the pat-down after the stop. Hunt makes no claim, in other words, that Leitzen violated his constitutional rights in frisking him for weapons. Hunt argues instead that Leitzen exceeded the lawful scope of that frisk when he seized the package—which Leitzen knew wasn't a weapon—from Hunt's pocket.

In Minnesota v. Dickerson , the Supreme Court articulated an exception to the warrant requirement based on an officer's "plain feel" of contraband during a lawful frisk for weapons. 508 U.S. 366, 375, 113 S.Ct. 2130, 124 L.Ed.2d 334 (1993). In Dickerson , officers were on patrol near a "crack house" when a man spotted the police car and abruptly began walking in the other direction. Id. at 368–69, 113 S.Ct. 2130. The officers, suspicions now aroused, stopped the man to investigate. Id. at 369, 113 S.Ct. 2130. One of the officers patted the man down for weapons. Id. Although he found no weapons, the officer testified to feeling "a small lump" in the defendant's pocket. Id. He examined the lump with his fingers and concluded it was crack cocaine packaged in cellophane. Id. The officer reached into the man's pocket and removed the package, which indeed turned out to contain a lump of crack. Id.

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