GRL Law Wins a Landmark Boating While Intoxicated Case: What it Means to Iowa Boaters

On Friday June 30th, the Iowa Supreme Court released its final round of decisions for the 2016-2017 judicial term.  Among them was State v. Pettijohn.  You can read it here.  The case was argued at the trial level and in front of the Iowa Supreme Court by GRL Law attorney Grant Gangestad.  The short and sweet facts of the case go something like this:

Dale Pettijohn was operating a rented pontoon boat with some friends on Saylorville Lake near Des Moines, Iowa.  He was navigating the boat without any issue and was not speeding or steering erratically.  One of his passengers, however, was sitting on the back of the boat with her feet dangling in the water near the outboard motor of the boat.  After seeing this passenger, a DNR water patrol officer decided to stop the boat to inform the operator of the boat his belief that it was dangerous to permit his passenger to sit on the back of the boat like that.  The officer’s reason for stopping the boat was that he suspected Mr. Pettijohn was committing a simple misdemeanor boating violation by operating the pontoon boat in violation of section 462A.12(1) of the Iowa Code, which provides, “No person shall operate any vessel . . . in a careless, reckless or negligent manner so as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person.”

After stopping Mr. Pettijohn’s vessel, the officer saw two coolers on the boat.  He also allegedly observed that Mr. Pettijohn had bloodshot eyes, was nervous, and avoided making eye contact with the officer.  As a result, the officer asked for backup to investigate Mr. Pettijohn for boating while intoxicated.  After field sobriety testing, Mr. Pettijohn was arrested and taken to the station for a breath test.  Before submitting to a breath test, Iowa law required that a person be read a document called an “implied consent advisory” informing a person of what Iowa law said would happen to them if the person refused to take the test requested by an officer. The advisory informed Mr. Pettijohn that if he refused to submit to a breath test, he would face a mandatory fine of $500 up to $2000, and a revocation of his boating privileges for at least one year per Iowa law.  In response to this advisory, Mr. Pettijohn decided to take the breath test requested by the officer, which indicated a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit of .08. 

Three main issues were raised in this case:

  1. Did the officer have the legal authority to stop and seize Mr. Pettijohn’s boat? In other words, did his passenger sitting on the back of the boat constitute a boating violation for which the officer could conduct a “traffic stop?”
  2. Was the advisory that was read to Mr. Pettijohn misleading to the point where it was constitutionally unfair to use the test result against him?
  3. Was it constitutional to coerce a person into consenting to a test by threatening them with a boating revocation and a fine?

As to the first issue, the Court found that even though Mr. Pettijohn was not operating the boat in a reckless manner by speeding or swerving, the Court determined that Pettijohn was operating the pontoon boat recklessly by allowing his passenger to sit on the back of the boat in close proximity to an unguarded propeller. If Mr. Pettijohn had made a sudden maneuver, the court reasoned, his passenger could have slipped off the boat and into the propeller. Therefore, the Court decided that the officer had cause to believe that Mr. Pettijohn was engaged in the crime of reckless operation, and that the stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution nor article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. 

The Court did touch on the second issue, but ultimately decided the case on the grounds raised in the third question.  The Court found that, under the Iowa Constitution, Iowa’s implied consent law for boating was unconstitutional.  First, the court stated that Iowa law prefers warrants as opposed to warrantless searches.  In other words, where an officer has the ability to ask a judge to issue a warrant based upon probable cause of a violation of the law, Iowa law requires an officer to do so instead of performing a warrantless search.  This approach is often called the “warrant requirement.”  This approach protects the privacy interests of the people of Iowa by requiring a warrant to be issued by a neutral magistrate or judge, protecting Iowans from unnecessary intrusions into our everyday lives by the government.  Because the breath test of Mr. Pettijohn was conducted without a warrant, the search (i.e. the breath test) was presumed to be illegal unless some exception to the warrant requirement existed.

The Court found that only one exception to the warrant requirement could potentially exist: consent.  If Mr. Pettijohn had consented to the search (i.e. the breath test), then the results of the test could be admitted against him at trial.  In order for consent to a search to be valid under Iowa law, it must be given freely and voluntarily without being coerced, pressured, or forced.  The Court found that because the advisory read to Mr. Pettijohn stated that he would be punished for refusing to consent to a search by getting a $500 to $2000 fine and at least a one year revocation of his boating privileges, his decision to consent to the test was coerced.  In other words, his consent to the search couldn’t really be considered voluntary because he was put in the impossible position of facing a penalty for refusing to consent or providing the state with evidence that he was not legally required to provide to the officer which would later be used to prosecute him.  Because the consent to the test was not legal, the Iowa Supreme Court stated that the results of that test are not admissible at trial. 

So what does this mean going forward? First, it means that you are responsible for your passenger’s actions as a boat operator in the state of Iowa.  You have a duty not to allow your passengers to do anything to endanger themselves or other persons when they are riding in a vessel you are operating.  It also means that the implied consent process for boating while intoxicated in Iowa is unconstitutional as it is currently written under Iowa law.  That means that, going forward, if anyone is asked to submit a test under the threat of a penalty for refusing to submit to a test, the results of the test would not be allowed to be used against them at trial.  The State, in response to this ruling, will likely attempt to get warrants to compel people to take a test.  The other alternative is for the officers to simply ask a person to consent to the breath test without threatening them with penalties for refusing to take the test.  In either case, Iowa’s implied consent law for boating while intoxicated as it is currently written is effectively dead. 

Importantly, the Iowa Supreme Court was clear that this decision only applied to boating, so Iowa’s implied consent law for driving a motor vehicle is still alive and well, although the Court did leave open the fact that it could be challenged in the future.  So if you are pulled over for boating while intoxicated, it is important to remember that you have the right to withhold consent to a search of your person.  That includes field sobriety tests, hand held breath tests, and breath testing at the police station.  You are not legally required to provide a specimen of your breath, blood, or urine, unless you are compelled to with a search warrant. And as always, the best way not to get arrested for boating while intoxicated is to boat in a safe, smart, and sober manner.  If you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of being arrested for Boating While Intoxicated, contact an experienced boating while intoxicated attorney to ensure your rights are protected.