State v. Wright

Decision Date18 June 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-0180,19-0180
Citation961 N.W.2d 396
CourtIowa Supreme Court
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Nicholas Dean WRIGHT, Appellant.

Colin C. Murphy (argued) of Gourley Rehkemper Lindholm, P.L.C., West Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Linda J. Hines (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Carlyle D. Dalen, County Attorney, and Steven D. Tynan, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

McDonald, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Oxley and McDermott, JJ., joined, and in which Appel, J., joined as to divisions I, IV(B)(E), and V. Appel, J., filed a special concurrence. Christensen, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Waterman and Mansfield, JJ., joined. Waterman, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Christensen, C.J., and Mansfield, J., joined. Mansfield, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Christensen, C.J., and Waterman, J., joined.

McDONALD, Justice.

"Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen." Olmstead v. United States , 277 U.S. 438, 485, 48 S. Ct. 564, 575, 72 L.Ed. 944 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting), overruled in part by Katz v. United States , 389 U.S. 347, 88 S. Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967), and Berger v. New York , 388 U.S. 41, 87 S. Ct. 1873, 18 L.Ed.2d 1040 (1967). We are tasked in this case of determining whether this bedrock constitutional principle prohibits a peace officer engaged in general criminal investigation without a warrant from taking a citizen's opaque trash bags left outside for collection, opening the trash bags, and rummaging through the papers and effects contained therein.


Nicholas Wright lives in Clear Lake. Like most municipalities, Clear Lake regulates the "storage, collection and disposal of solid waste" to protect the "health, safety and welfare" of its residents. Clear Lake, Iowa, Code of Ordinances § 105.01 (2003). The city restricts the manner in which residents can dispose of waste. See id. at §§ 105.05 (restricting open burning), .06 (requiring separation of yard waste), .07 (prohibiting littering), .08 (prohibiting open dumping). The city requires "the owner or occupant of the premises served" to set out the solid waste containers for collection once per week "at the curb or alley line." Id. at §§ 105.10(3), 106.04. The city limits who may access and collect solid waste to licensed and contracted collectors. See id. § 105.02(1) (defining collector); id. §§ 106.01 (providing for collection service), .06 (granting collectors right of entry), .07 (prohibiting solid waste collection without a city contract), .11 (setting forth licensing requirements). The city makes it "unlawful for any person to ... [t]ake or collect any solid waste which has been placed out for collection on any premises, unless such person is an authorized solid waste collector." Id. § 105.11(4). Violation of this ordinance is punishable by a fine. See id. § 1.15.

Despite the ordinance making it unlawful for any person (other than an authorized collector) to take solid waste placed out for collection, Officer Brandon Heinz, on three occasions, during the dark of night, without probable cause or a warrant, went into the alley behind Wright's residence to take Wright's garbage bags and search through them to "obtain information about what Mr. Wright may have been doing inside [his] house." More specifically, Officer Heinz was "looking for anything related to drug activity." Heinz focused his criminal investigation on Wright based on information from Deputy Tami Cavett. She informed Heinz that a male nicknamed "Beef" was selling drugs and lived near a local bar. Through the course of his investigation, Heinz discovered Wright went by the nickname "Beef" and lived three blocks from the bar.

The first time Heinz went through Wright's papers and effects occurred on September 11, 2017. Around 11:30 p.m. that night, Heinz observed two garbage cans without lids at the edge of the alley behind Wright's residence. Heinz believed the garbage cans had been placed there for waste collection the next morning. He testified he was able to access the garbage bags without leaving the alley. The bags were opaque, and Heinz "couldn't see through them or anything." He was not "able to observe anything that led [him] to believe there was evidence of criminal activity in the bag until [he] opened the bag." Heinz "retrieved the garbage bags and brought them to the police department where [he] went through them."

Heinz testified he "[s]earched through the contents for narcotics related contraband." He found empty poppy seed packages and fabric squares with circular brown stains around one inch in diameter and seeds stuck to the fabric. He submitted the seeds and fabric squares to the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) for testing. Heinz received the DCI lab report on November 2, which confirmed the seeds were poppy seeds. One fabric square tested positive for morphine. Two fabric squares tested positive for a combination of morphine and cocaine.

After receiving test results from DCI, Heinz again took garbage bags from the alley behind Wright's home on the nights of November 6 and November 20 and returned to the police station to search through the bags. On November 6, Heinz found two pieces of mail addressed to Wright, one from a bank and one from a telecommunications company. Heinz found more fabric squares with brown stains and poppy seeds stuck to them. On November 20, he found similar items as well as empty poppy seed packages and a 10-pound poppy seed package that had 9.75 pounds remaining in the package.

Heinz then applied for and was granted a search warrant. Probable cause for the search warrant was predicated on the evidence obtained from the warrantless seizure and search of Wright's trash bags. The police executed the warrant at Wright's residence on November 21. They discovered a baggie containing two grams of marijuana and several capsules of Vyvanse, a prescription drug for which Wright had no prescription.

The State charged Wright with three counts of unlawful possession of drugs: (1) possession of a prescription drug without a valid prescription, in violation of Iowa Code section 155A.21 (2017); (2) possession of marijuana, in violation of Iowa Code section 124.401(5) ; and (3) possession of Vyvanse, in violation of Iowa Code section 124.401(5).

Wright timely filed a motion to suppress evidence. Wright argued Heinz's warrantless removal of the trash bags from Wright's residence and search of the papers and effects contained therein violated Wright's federal and state constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable seizures and searches. Wright made two arguments in support of his motion. First, he argued Heinz physically trespassed on his property. Second, he argued he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents contained in his trash bags. Wright argued the search warrant ultimately issued was without probable cause if the evidence obtained from the warrantless seizures and searches of his trash bags were suppressed. The district court denied the motion.

Pursuant to a plea agreement, the State subsequently dismissed count one of the trial information. Following a trial on the minutes of testimony, the district court found Wright guilty of counts two and three and sentenced Wright to serve two days in jail.

Wright appealed, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's denial of Wright's motion to suppress evidence.

The court of appeals reasoned Heinz did not unlawfully trespass on Wright's property because there was no physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area. The court of appeals reasoned Wright had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his garbage under federal or state law.

We granted Wright's application for further review. "On further review, we have the discretion to review any issue raised on appeal." Burton v. Hilltop Care Ctr. , 813 N.W.2d 250, 255 (Iowa 2012) (quoting State v. Marin , 788 N.W.2d 833, 836 (Iowa 2010), overruled on other grounds by Alcala v. Marriott Int'l, Inc. , 880 N.W.2d 699 (Iowa 2016) ). Where, "as here, a defendant raises both federal and state constitutional claims, the court has discretion to consider either claim first or consider the claims simultaneously." State v. Pals , 805 N.W.2d 767, 772 (Iowa 2011). Because Wright's state constitutional claim is dispositive of the case, we exercise our discretion to address only that claim. The court of appeals decision is final as to Wright's federal claim.


The Iowa Constitution provides, "This Constitution shall be the supreme law of the state, and any law inconsistent therewith, shall be void." Iowa Const. art. XII, § 1. The Iowa Constitution provides any law—without regard to its source—inconsistent therewith "shall be void." Id. None of the departments of our state government are authorized—by bill, order, rule, judicial decision, or otherwise—to make law or legalize conduct infringing upon the minimum rights guaranteed in the Iowa Constitution. We "must provide at a minimum the degree of protection [the constitution] afforded when it was adopted." United States v. Jones , 565 U.S. 400, 411, 132 S. Ct. 945, 953, 181 L.Ed.2d 911 (2012) (emphasis omitted).

In determining the minimum degree of protection the constitution afforded when adopted, we generally look to the text of the constitution as illuminated by the lamp of precedent, history, custom, and practice. See Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Reynolds , 915 N.W.2d 206, 247 (Iowa 2018) (Mansfield, J., dissenting) (beginning constitutional analysis with the text and original understanding); State v. Crooks , 911 N.W.2d 153, 167 (Iowa 2018) ("In exercising our independent judgment, we are ‘guided by "the standards elaborated by controlling precedents and by [our] own...

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