Whatever happened to the idea that a warrant is required except for in few jealously guarded and carefully drawn exceptions where the delay necessary to obtain a warrant is outweighed by the compelling necessity for immediate action?!
It has long been recognized that the purpose behind the 4th Amendment's warrant requirement is to ensure that when time permits, law enforcement must present evidence that they believe creates probable cause to a neutral and detached magistrate for an independent determination. The rule has always been, when time permits a warrant must be obtained because the United States Constitution has always required that an impartial judgment of a judicial officer be imposed between the citizen and the police who are often engaged in what has been described as the "competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime." Personal privacy has always been of utmost concern in our nation. The United States Supreme Court could not have been clearer regarding the importance of a search warrant when it stated in Katz v. United States:
"The Government urges that, because its agents relied upon the decisions in Olmstead and Goldman, and because they did no more here than they might properly have done with prior judicial sanction, we should retroactively validate their conduct. That we cannot do. It is apparent that the agents in this case acted with restraint. Yet the inescapable fact is that this restraint was imposed by the agents themselves, not by a judicial officer. They were not required, before commencing the search, to present their estimate of probable cause for detached scrutiny by a neutral magistrate. They were not compelled, during the conduct of the search itself, to observe precise limits established in advance by a specific court order. Nor were they directed, after the search had been completed, to notify the authorizing magistrate in detail of all that had been seized. In the absence of such safeguards, this Court has never sustained a search upon the sole ground that officers reasonably expected to find evidence of a particular crime and voluntarily confined their activities to the least intrusive means consistent with that end. Searches conducted without warrants have been held unlawful notwithstanding facts unquestionably showing probable cause, Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20, 33, for the Constitution requires that the deliberate, impartial judgment of a judicial officer * * * be interposed between the citizen and the police * * *.' Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 481-82. Over and again this Court has emphasized that the mandate of the (Fourth) Amendment requires adherence to judicial processes,' United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 51, and that searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 356-57 (1967).
Evidently, in situations involving the search of motor vehicles for narcotics, these fundamental principals as set forth by the United States Supreme Court have become nothing more then empty rhetoric to the Iowa Supreme Court. On Friday, May 10th, the Iowa Supreme Court in State v. Allensworth http://www.judicial.state.ia.us/Supreme_Court/Recent_Opinions/20080509/06-1507.pdf held that even when an automobile is impounded and is safely secured within the possession of law enforcement, police do not have to obtain a warrant to search the entire vehicle if they discover contraband pursuant to their "impound inventory" of the vehicle. Even though the officers had all the time in the world to obtain a search warrant signed and approved by a neutral and detached magistrate, the Supreme Court held that a search warrant was not necessary because the discovery of the narcotics during a inventory search provided probable cause to search the entire vehicle. This included removing the horn cap to discover the concealed narcotics. The Court justified the search under the "automobile exception" to the search warrant requirement.
The "automobile exception" to the warrant requirement has its roots in the well-recognized exception of probable cause coupled with exigent circumstances wherein law enforcement is permitted to forgo the search warrant process because an emergency situation justifies conducting a search to preserve life or evidence that is immanently in danger. With the "automobile exception" the rationale is that the vehicle's "inherent mobility" created the exigent circumstances because if it were not searched the occupants would be able to drive off and the evidence or contraband would be lost forever. Thus, so long as probable cause existed to believe the vehicle contained evidence it's inherent mobility justified the immediate search under the probable cause + exigent circumstances exception. Initially, if properly limited, this exception was at least supported by some form of logic, whether right or wrong.
Over time the "automobile exception" has been bastardized (as have the majority of the theoretically "carefully drawn and jealously guarded" exceptions to the warrant requirement) to the point we have arrived at today. The mobility of the vehicle, which is the entire premise upon which this exception is based, is no longer the primary concern. In fact, it is of absolutely no concern whatsoever. Prior to the Iowa Supreme Court's decision in Allensworth, the focus under the "automobile exception" was the mobility of the vehicle at the time probable cause arose. For example, in State v. Olsen, the Iowa Supreme Court held that so long as probable cause arose on the scene, law enforcement could impound the vehicle and take it to the station for a thorough search and they did not need to conduct the search on the side of the road. The rationale was that because they could have searched the vehicle on the side of the road it was not unreasonable to take it to the safety and security of the station to perform the search. Now, under Allensworth, the mobility of the vehicle becomes absolutely irrelevant. In Allensworth, the vehicle was completely immobilized when the narcotics were discovered in the vehicle pursuant to the inventory search. There was no pressing for time, no emergency situation, no exigency whatsoever. Law enforcement had all the time in the world to obtain a warrant by presenting their findings to a neutral and detached magistrate. The Iowa Supreme Court has taken the "automobile exception" to an entirely new height. The mobility of the vehicle, which was initially the justification for the exception in the first place, now is completely irrelevant. This exception has come full circle.
This decision begs the question of "what's next?" A vehicle broken down and on blocks is still considered mobile because it is an automobile? As far as the Iowa Supreme Court is concerned when it comes to searches of vehicles, they have now take the position of: Warrant? We don't need no stinking warrant! Hopefully the defendant will request that this decision be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court and one can only pray for a better resolution there.