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UI law professor says U.S. Supreme Court will side with Monroe, Iowa man

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A University of Iowa law professor who filed a friend of the court brief supporting a Monroe, Iowa man's claim that he was unreasonably searched by a Newton police officer in 1996, says the U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule in the man's favor.

UI College of Law professor James Tomkovicz filed the amicus curiae brief in the case argued before the Court on Nov. 3 and is listed as the attorney of record for the case. Tomkovicz, who specializes in criminal law and criminal procedure, says the Fourth Amendment guards against invasive and offensive searches.

Tomkovicz agrees with Patrick Knowles, who claims the police officer who stopped him for speeding had no right to search his car simply because he had been issued a traffic citation for speeding. The officer found marijuana and a pipe in Knowles' car. A state trial judge later sentenced Knowles to 90 days in jail.

The brief was written at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, which have sided with Knowles. Although an Iowa statute authorizes officers to search motorists and the insides of their vehicles whenever they issue a traffic citation, the Fourth Amendment requires searches to be "reasonable."

"Full searches of the body are pretty intrusive. At a minimum, there needs to be probable cause or a lawful custodial arrest. In Mr. Knowles' case, there was no probable cause to search for contraband or a weapon, and the officer had decided not to arrest him. Consequently, there was no reason to assume that Mr. Knowles would destroy evidence, threaten the officer's safety, or pose any other kind of danger. It's a painfully simple case," Tomkovicz says.

The brief makes three arguments against the constitutionality of "searches incident to traffic citations." It maintains that there is no common law authority for such searches, that Supreme Court precedents require a "custodial" arrest and that the government's interests in searching traffic offenders do not outweigh the costs to personal privacy imposed by such searches.

"The Fourth Amendment extends constitutional protection to the privacy of our persons and our vehicles. That privacy cannot be violated unless the government demonstrates superior interests.

In Knowles' case, and in the case of other Iowa motorists cited for minor traffic offenses, there are no demonstrated government interests that justify the intrusive searches permitted by the Iowa statute," Tomkovicz says.

Should the Court rule in the government's favor in the Knowles case, other states could see the ruling as an invitation to conduct similar searches.

If the Court instead concludes that the Iowa law is unconstitutional, as Tomkovicz predicts, the ruling will inform the states that traffic citations do not provide an adequate reason for searching motorists. Iowa, and a few other states that authorize such searches, would have to change their laws to conform to the ruling, Tomkovicz says.

It is not certain when the Court will issue its ruling in the case, but Tomkovicz says he would not be surprised to see an opinion handed down before January. While the ruling may not have a dramatic effect on most routine traffic stops, it could at least restrain officers from to stopping and searching motorists based on inappropriate variables, such as race, Tomkovicz says.