Iowa Court of Appeals Holds That Police Officer Cannot Detain Occupants of a Vehicle Merely Because There Was Movement Inside of the Vehicle with Moisture on the Windows

Two individuals in a car after closing time were parked in a parking lot.  Police Officer while on routine patrol noticed two vehicles in a parking lot with their lights on.  The police officer could not tell if there were individuals inside the vehicles.  He continued on with his patrol and eventually drove by the same parking lot where he originally noticed the vehicles.  However, this time the lights on one of vehicles was now turned off. The police officer noticed there was moisture on the windows and he could see movement inside.  The police officer then proceeded to pull up behind the vehicle and activated his overheard lights.

Officer Shutts approached the car to speak with the occupants.  Elder, the defendant in this case, was in the vehicle with a female passenger.  He told Officer Shutts that they were “just talking.” Officer Shutts noticed the smell of alcoholic beverages coming from the vehicle. Eventually, Elder was arrested and charged with Operating While Intoxicated.

One of the issues the Iowa Court of Appeals answered was whether the police officer could detain the occupants of the car based upon his observation of moisture on the windows and movement inside of the vehicle.  The Court of Appeals said no.  The Court held that the police officer’s vehicle stop was not justified by reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot, and therefore, reversed and found in favor of the defendant.

​The State also tried to argue that the police officer was justified in his investigation according to the community caretaking function, and it was only after smelling alcoholic beverages that provided him with the requisite probable cause. The Appeals’ Court disagreed noting that there was nothing wrong with the car, such as flat tire or engine trouble, etc.,  that would justify investigation under the community caretaker doctrine.  Ultimately, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that the State could not present evidence that a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity arose from the facts available to Officer Shutts.  Consequently, the reasonable suspicion exception to the warrant requirement could not support the seizure of Elder’s vehicle. State v. Elder, (Iowa Ct. App. 2015).