State v. Struve

Citation956 N.W.2d 90
Decision Date19 February 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-1614,19-1614
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Steven Edward STRUVE, Appellant.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa

Martha J. Lucey, State Appellate Defender, and Vidhya K. Reddy (argued), Assistant Appellate Defendant, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kyle Hanson (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Mike Wolf, County Attorney, and James M. McHugh, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

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

OXLEY, Justice.

Iowa is not a "hands-free" driving state. The Iowa legislature recently expanded Iowa's texting-while-driving1 statute but stopped short of prohibiting all hands-on use of a cell phone. Instead, Iowa Code section 321.276 allows drivers to use cell phones for some limited purposes while prohibiting most others.

We do not decide today what uses of a cell phone are permitted and what uses are prohibited by section 321.276. The driver here was not charged with violating the statute. He was, however, stopped when officers believed he might be violating it. Thus, this case requires us to determine when a police officer's observations of a driver using a cell phone move from only a "hunch" the driver is using the cell phone in a prohibited manner to providing the "specific and articulable facts" required to permit an officer to stop a driver and investigate whether the use violates Iowa law. For the reasons explained below, we hold that observations of a driver holding a phone in front of his face and actively manipulating the screen for at least ten seconds as involved in this case justified stopping the driver to resolve any ambiguity about whether the driver was violating section 321.276.

I. Factual Background and Proceedings.

Around 9 p.m. on October 2, 2018, Clinton police officers Curtis Blake and Roger Schumacher were driving next to a vehicle when they observed the driver holding a phone in front of his face. They could see the glow of the phone from their car and that the driver was "manipulating" the screen with his finger. The officers’ dash camera recorded the incident. After travelling alongside the car for approximately ten seconds, during which time the driver continued using the phone, the officers made a traffic stop.

After they pulled him over, the officers recognized the driver of the car as Steven Struve. Struve continued using the cell phone as the officers approached his vehicle. Officer Schumacher spoke to Struve, telling him he was not allowed to text while driving, while Officer Blake spoke to Struve's passenger. Struve responded he thought it was only illegal to text and drive in Illinois and explained he had been showing his passenger photos from his phone's gallery. As Officer Schumacher spoke to Struve, Officer Blake noticed what appeared to be a drug pipe protruding from a bag in the car's backseat. Officer Blake notified Officer Schumacher about the pipe, and they searched the vehicle.

The officers confirmed the pipe was the type used to smoke methamphetamine and ultimately discovered a baggie of over twenty grams of a substance that appeared to be methamphetamine under the center console. The officers arrested Struve and charged him with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in excess of five grams, a class "B" felony, and failure to affix a drug stamp. Struve filed a motion to suppress the items discovered during the traffic stop, arguing the officers lacked reasonable suspicion Struve was committing a traffic violation. Without reasonable suspicion, the traffic stop would amount to an unconstitutional seizure, and the fruits of that seizure would be suppressed. The district court denied the motion, concluding the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Struve under Iowa Code section 321.276.

After a plea agreement was reached, and then withdrawn, the State withdrew the class "B" felony charge and charged Struve with possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine in violation of Iowa Code section 124.401(1)(c )(6), a class "C" felony. Struve proceeded to a bench trial on the minutes of testimony, and the district court found him guilty. Struve appeals the denial of his motion to suppress. On appeal, Struve challenges only the initial stop; he does not challenge the officers’ subsequent search of the car after they observed the pipe in the back seat, conducted under the plain-view exception to the warrant requirement.

II. Standard of Review.

Struve claims the officer's stop amounted to an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. Given the constitutional basis of his challenge, we review the denial of his motion to suppress de novo. State v. Tyler , 830 N.W.2d 288, 291 (Iowa 2013). "We independently evaluate the totality of the circumstances found in the record ...." State v. Vance , 790 N.W.2d 775, 780 (Iowa 2010). We give deference to the factual findings of the trial court but we are not bound by them. Id. ; Tyler , 830 N.W.2d at 291. The parties do not seriously dispute the underlying facts; rather, they disagree about whether the officers’ observations supported the stop.

III. Analysis.

A. Reasonable Suspicion to Support an Investigatory Stop. Struve challenges the officers’ stop as an unreasonable warrantless seizure. See State v. Kreps , 650 N.W.2d 636, 641 (Iowa 2002). Our focus is on reasonableness, as our jurisprudence—and both constitutions—prohibit only "unreasonable" seizures. See U.S. Const. amend. IV ; Iowa Const. art. I, § 8. These constitutional protections generally require a warrant before an officer may seize a person, with noted exceptions.

One exception allows an officer to briefly detain a driver to investigate whether a traffic violation has been, or is being, committed, but only if the officer can establish reasonable suspicion for the stop. Kreps , 650 N.W.2d at 641. "The purpose of an investigatory stop is to allow a police officer to confirm or dispel suspicions of criminal activity through reasonable questioning." Id. Reasonable suspicion to support an investigatory stop requires that the officer identify "specific and articulable facts, which taken together with rational inferences from those facts, to reasonably believe criminal activity may have occurred." State v. Tague , 676 N.W.2d 197, 204 (Iowa 2004). "Mere suspicion, curiosity, or hunch of criminal activity is not enough." Id.

Yet, police officers need not rule out all possibility of innocent behavior before briefly detaining a driver. Kreps , 650 N.W.2d at 641–42. Even if it is equally probable that a driver is innocent, "police officers must be permitted to act before their reasonable belief is verified by escape or fruition of the harm it was their duty to prevent." Id. at 642 (quoting United States v. Holland , 510 F.2d 453, 455 (9th Cir. 1975) ). Thus, "reasonable cause may exist to investigate conduct which is subject to a legitimate explanation and turns out to be wholly lawful." Id. (quoting State v. Richardson , 501 N.W.2d 495, 497 (Iowa 1993) (per curiam)). We "judge[ ] the facts against an objective standard: ‘would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure ... "warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief" that the action taken was appropriate?’ " Id. at 641 (quoting State v. Heminover , 619 N.W.2d 353, 357 (Iowa 2000) (en banc), abrogated on other grounds by State v. Turner , 630 N.W.2d 601, 606 n.2 (Iowa 2001) ).

The United States Supreme Court recently addressed reasonable suspicion in Kansas v. Glover , where it held an officer had reasonable suspicion to stop a driver after the officer ran the vehicle's plates and learned the owner's license was revoked. See 589 U.S. ––––, ––––, 140 S. Ct. 1183, 1188, 206 L.Ed.2d 412 (2020). That fact, coupled with "the commonsense inference that [the owner] was likely the driver of the vehicle ... provided more than reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop." Id.

In distinguishing between a "mere hunch" that does not create reasonable suspicion and articulable and particularized facts that do, the Court recognized that officers in the field must be allowed to rely on "commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior" in determining whether the particular facts known to the officer indicate criminal activity sufficient to warrant investigation. Id. at ––––, 140 S. Ct. at 1187–88 (quoting Illinois v. Wardlow , 528 U.S. 119, 125, 120 S. Ct. 673, 676, 145 L.Ed.2d 570 (2000) ).

Justice Kagan concurred, agreeing that the officer could reasonably infer that the driver of a vehicle is likely the owner even if the owner's license has been revoked based on the additional fact that "revocations in Kansas nearly always stem from serious or repeated driving violations," giving additional support to the officer's inference that motorists with revoked licenses continue to drive. Id. at ––––, 140 S. Ct. at 1194 (Kagan, J., concurring). The majority recognized the Kansas licensing scheme reinforced the reasonableness of the officer's inference, but it was not needed to support the stop; "common sense suffice[d] to justify [the] inference." Id. at ––––, 140 S. Ct. at 1188–89.

We reached the same conclusion on similar facts ten years earlier. See Vance , 790 N.W.2d at 781. An officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigatory stop where the officer knew the registered owner of the vehicle had a suspended license and the officer was "unaware of any evidence or circumstances indicating the registered owner [was] not the driver of the vehicle." Id. (addressing a challenge under the Fourth Amendment).

Recognizing that an inference that the owner of a vehicle does most of the driving "may...

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