State v. Kurth, No. 11–0525.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMANSFIELD
Citation813 N.W.2d 270
PartiesSTATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Jeffrey Dana KURTH, Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 11–0525.
Decision Date11 May 2012

813 N.W.2d 270

STATE of Iowa, Appellee,
v.
Jeffrey Dana KURTH, Appellant.

No. 11–0525.

Supreme Court of Iowa.

May 11, 2012.



Robert G. Rehkemper of Gourley, Rehkemper & Lindholm, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Benjamin M. Parrott, Assistant Attorney General, John P. Sarcone, County Attorney, and David M. Porter, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

[813 N.W.2d 271]


MANSFIELD, Justice.

This case presents the question whether an officer is justified in activating his emergency lights and blocking a driver into a parking space under the “community caretaking function” exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment based solely upon his knowledge that the vehicle has just struck an object in the roadway and suffered minor damage not affecting the drivability of the car. We conclude that under these circumstances, the community caretaking exception is inapplicable, and the seizure was impermissible. For this reason, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand this case.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History.

On November 28, 2010, at about 2:00 a.m., Officer Adam Jones and Officer Trent Weiler of the Clive Police Department had parked their vehicles and were talking in the lot of a grocery store near 8700 Hickman Road in Clive. Officer Jones was working a special traffic enforcement detail funded by the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau. Officer Jones heard a loud crash, which sounded like metal-on-metal contact, coming from nearby on Hickman Road. He testified at the suppression hearing that when he looked over toward the direction of the sound he saw an Infiniti sedan approximately 50 yards away, traveling east, and “enveloped in a cloud of dust or smoke.” The defendant, Jeremy Kurth, was driving the vehicle.

Believing that the vehicle might have struck a road sign, Officer Jones proceeded after the vehicle and observed a road sign down in the left eastbound lane of Hickman Road. He then pulled behind the vehicle, which was stopped at a red light in the left-turn lane and waiting to turn north onto 86th Street. Officer Jones testified that at this time he was still unsure whether the vehicle had knocked down the sign or if the sign had already been down in the roadway when the vehicle struck it. However, he also stated that Kurth's vehicle could not have knocked the sign down from the median because his car was at all times in its own lane. Officer Jones further testified that at this time, traffic was light, and no other cars were in the vicinity. The vehicle turned left onto 86th Street, circled around a strip mall, and entered the parking lot of a restaurant. While Officer Jones followed the vehicle, the following conversation took place between him and Officer Weiler over their radios:

Officer 73 (Jones): Did he just hit a sign or something?

Officer 78 (Weiler): Don't know, he was just in the lane.

Officer 78 (Weiler): Yeah, he did.

Officer 73 (Jones): Well, there's a sign down here, I don't know if he knocked it down, but he hit it.

Officer 78 (Weiler): I don't think he hit it, I think it was already there, in the roadway.

Officer 73 (Jones): 78?

Dispatch: Go 73.

Officer 73 (Jones): I'm still behind that guy, what do you think?

Officer 78 (Weiler): I would say it's your call depending on how he's driving. He was driving down Hickman, and it was like he was just in his lane, then he just hit the sign laying there.

Officer 73 (Jones): Copy. Yeah, he's going into Perkin's. Westcom copy a plate traffic stop.

Dispatch: Go ahead.

Officer 73 (Jones): [Reading the license plate number aloud], he has damage

[813 N.W.2d 272]

to his front end from hitting the sign—I don't know if he's aware of it.

Dispatch: 10–4.

Kurth pulled into a parking space at the restaurant and lawfully parked the vehicle of his own volition; Officer Jones did not attempt to stop the vehicle. Officer Jones testified that he never observed Kurth commit any traffic violations and that he had no reason to suspect that any occupant of the vehicle (including its female passenger) was engaged in any type of criminal activity. Officer Jones confirmed that the vehicle was drivable at all times.

Once the vehicle was parked, Officer Jones pulled around Kurth and saw that the vehicle had sustained damage to the front fascia which he characterized as not significant. At that point he activated his emergency lights and blocked in Kurth's vehicle. Officer Jones testified that from this time forward the vehicle and its occupants were not free to go. Officer Jones approached Kurth and proceeded to have a conversation with him about the damage to the front of his vehicle. According to Officer Jones, when he showed Kurth the damage, Kurth became very upset and said he did not know how the damage had occurred.

During this conversation, Officer Jones detected an odor of an alcoholic beverage, Kurth's speech was slurred, and his eyes were glossy and bloodshot. Kurth admitted that he was driving from a bar where he had consumed alcohol. Kurth agreed to participate in standardized field sobriety testing. Three field sobriety tests indicated Kurth was intoxicated, as did a preliminary breath test. Officer Jones placed Kurth under arrest. A subsequent Datamaster breath test showed a blood alcohol content of .222%, nearly three times the legal limit.

On January 5, 2011, the State filed a trial information charging Kurth with operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol (OWI), a serious misdemeanor in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2 (2011). Kurth filed a timely motion to suppress asserting the stop of his vehicle had been unlawful. The State resisted the motion to suppress on the grounds that the warrantless seizure of Kurth's vehicle was justified under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Following a hearing at which Officer Jones testified and the recording of his conversation with Officer Weiler was played, the district court denied Kurth's motion to suppress. The matter proceeded to trial on the minutes of testimony the same day, and the district court found Kurth guilty of OWI. Kurth was sentenced to one year in jail with all but two days suspended, probation, and a fine. Kurth now appeals, urging the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress.

II. Standard of Review.

Kurth argues the stop of his vehicle violated his constitutional rights under both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. “In considering alleged violations of constitutional rights, our standard of review is de novo.” State v. Krogmann, 804 N.W.2d 518, 522 (Iowa 2011) (citing State v. Lyman, 776 N.W.2d 865, 873 (Iowa 2010)). “ ‘[W]e make an independent evaluation [based on] the totality of the circumstances as shown by the entire record.’ ” Id. at 522–23 (quoting State v. Brooks, 760 N.W.2d 197, 204 (Iowa 2009)). “ ‘Each case must be evaluated in light of its unique circumstances.’ ” Id. at 523.

III. Analysis.

Kurth challenges the warrantless stop of his vehicle. He maintains there was no reason to believe he had violated any traffic

[813 N.W.2d 273]

regulation or any other law at the time of the stop and, accordingly, his constitutional rights were violated. The State responds that the stop of Kurth's vehicle was justified under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

The community caretaking exception can be traced to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 2528, 37 L.Ed.2d 706, 714–15 (1973). That case involved a warrantless search of the trunk of a damaged car that had been towed from the scene of an accident to a private facility. Cady, 413 U.S. at 442–43, 93 S.Ct. at 2528–29, 37 L.Ed.2d at 715. Local Wisconsin law enforcement believed that the intoxicated and comatose driver, a Chicago police officer, was required to carry his service revolver at all times, and they had not found the revolver on his person. Id. at 436–37, 93 S.Ct. at 2525–26, 37 L.Ed.2d at 711–12. Therefore, following a standard procedure, they searched the trunk of the impounded vehicle to protect the public from the possibility that the revolver would fall into someone else's hands. Id. at 443, 93 S.Ct. at 2529, 37 L.Ed.2d at 716. During that search, local police did not find the revolver, but obtained other evidence that was later used to convict the driver of first-degree murder. Id. at 434, 437, 93 S.Ct. at 2525, 2526, 37 L.Ed.2d at 710, 712.

The Supreme Court held the warrantless search in Cady was lawful as a “caretaking” search based upon “concern for the safety of the general public who might be endangered if an intruder removed a revolver from the trunk of a vehicle.” Id. at 447, 93 S.Ct. at 2531, 37 L.Ed.2d at 718. The Court explained that local police officers frequently “engage in what, for want of a better term, may be described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Id. at 441, 93 S.Ct. at 2528, 37 L.Ed.2d at 714–15. The Court concluded that searches made in the performance of community caretaking functions do not require warrants and are subject to “only the general standard of ‘unreasonableness' as a guide in determining” constitutionality. Id. at 448, 93 S.Ct. at 2531, 37 L.Ed.2d at 718. The Court also stated that “[t]he fact that the protection of the public might, in the abstract, have been accomplished by ‘less intrusive’ means does not, by itself, render the search unreasonable.” Id. at 447, 93 S.Ct. at 2531, 37 L.Ed.2d at 718 (citing Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 90 S.Ct. 1975, 26 L.Ed.2d 419 (1970)).

Since Cady was decided nearly forty years ago, the Supreme Court has continued to address warrantless seizures and searches in numerous contexts but has said relatively little to...

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44 practice notes
  • Commonwealth v. Livingstone, No. 11 WAP 2016
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • November 27, 2017
    ...and seizure of automobiles, but also situations involving either emergency aid or routine checks on health and safety); State v. Kurth , 813 N.W.2d 270, 277 (Iowa 2012) (community caretaking activity consists of three subcategories: the emergency aid exception, the automobile impoundment/in......
  • State v. Kern, No. 11–1208.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • May 24, 2013
    ...“ ‘we make an independent evaluation [based on] the totality of the circumstances as shown by the entire record.’ ” State v. Kurth, 813 N.W.2d 270, 272 (Iowa 2012) (quoting State v. Krogmann, 804 N.W.2d 518, 522 (Iowa 2011)). “ ‘Each case must be evaluated in light of its unique circumstanc......
  • State v. Moats, No. E2010–02013–SC–R11–CD.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Tennessee
    • March 22, 2013
    ...which courts have applied the community caretaking exception to an officer's safety check of a parked vehicle); but see State v. Kurth, 813 N.W.2d 270, 277–80 (Iowa 2012) (finding the exception inapplicable when the officer blocked in the vehicle of the defendant, whom the officer suspected......
  • State v. Coffman, No. 16-1720
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 22, 2018
    ..." Id. (quoting Brown , 890 N.W.2d at 321 ). "Each case must be evaluated in light of its unique circumstances." State v. Kurth , 813 N.W.2d 270, 272 (Iowa 2012) (quoting State v. Krogmann , 804 N.W.2d 518, 523 (Iowa 2011) ).III. Analysis.Coffman claims that he was lawfully parked on the sho......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
44 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Livingstone, No. 11 WAP 2016
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • November 27, 2017
    ...and seizure of automobiles, but also situations involving either emergency aid or routine checks on health and safety); State v. Kurth , 813 N.W.2d 270, 277 (Iowa 2012) (community caretaking activity consists of three subcategories: the emergency aid exception, the automobile impoundment/in......
  • State v. Kern, No. 11–1208.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • May 24, 2013
    ...“ ‘we make an independent evaluation [based on] the totality of the circumstances as shown by the entire record.’ ” State v. Kurth, 813 N.W.2d 270, 272 (Iowa 2012) (quoting State v. Krogmann, 804 N.W.2d 518, 522 (Iowa 2011)). “ ‘Each case must be evaluated in light of its unique circumstanc......
  • State v. Moats, No. E2010–02013–SC–R11–CD.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Tennessee
    • March 22, 2013
    ...which courts have applied the community caretaking exception to an officer's safety check of a parked vehicle); but see State v. Kurth, 813 N.W.2d 270, 277–80 (Iowa 2012) (finding the exception inapplicable when the officer blocked in the vehicle of the defendant, whom the officer suspected......
  • State v. Coffman, No. 16-1720
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 22, 2018
    ..." Id. (quoting Brown , 890 N.W.2d at 321 ). "Each case must be evaluated in light of its unique circumstances." State v. Kurth , 813 N.W.2d 270, 272 (Iowa 2012) (quoting State v. Krogmann , 804 N.W.2d 518, 523 (Iowa 2011) ).III. Analysis.Coffman claims that he was lawfully parked on the sho......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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