CEDAR RAPIDS — An Iowa Supreme Court ruling tightening the reins on towing and impounding vehicles could mean more than a half-million-dollar hit a year for the Cedar Rapids Police Department.
Before the 2018 ruling, Cedar Rapids police could impound vehicles tied to controlled substance violations, possession of drug paraphernalia, driving while a license is suspended, revoked or barred, or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, among other reasons.
“After the Supreme Court decision, the number of incidents in which a vehicle could be impounded was reduced,” Greg Buelow, Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman, said of the decision in the State of Iowa v. Bion Blake Ingram.
New restrictions and the elimination of a $500 civil impound fee that was charged before a vehicle would be released have led to the decrease. The fiscal 2021 budget forecasts a $645,000 reduction in towing fees, down from $695,000 to $50,000.
Ingram was pulled over in Newton on Oct. 30, 2015, because the vehicle’s license plate was not properly illuminated and police discovered the vehicle’s registration was expired, according to the ruling.
While police were “inventorying” the contents of the vehicle before towing and impound, they discovered a bag with a pipe and a gram of methamphetamine, and arrested Ingram.
Ingram sought to suppress the evidence, contending the warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment protecting against unreasonable search and seizure, and impounding his vehicle was a pretext to search the vehicle.
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The lower court denied the motion to suppress, noting inventory searches was an exemption to warrant requirements.
The Iowa Supreme Court reversed the decision and said the current method allowed wide discretion for stopping, arresting and conducting warrantless searches for minor offenses in contrast to the protections of search and seizure laws.
“A warrantless inventory search and seizure seems more like a law-enforcement weapon than a benign service to citizens,” the ruling stated.
The ruling proposed alternatives to impound and allowing the owner or operator to retrieve personal items or have them stored for safekeeping without being opened.
While towing and impound still are allowed and may be necessary in some cases in Cedar Rapids — such as the vehicle is needed for evidence, fraudulent registration or failing to provide proof of ownership — much of the court’s recommendations were adopted.
Cedar Rapids now advises police officers to avoid impoundment if the vehicle can be legally parked on public or private property in a reasonably secure and safe location or it can be released to another person, and the vehicle is not needed by law enforcement for evidence.
Towing has declined from 2,824 in 2017, to 2,041 in 2018, to 1,857 in 2019, according to Cedar Rapids data.
Darrah’s Towing Service long has been the city’s contractor for towing, earning up to $30,000 per years. According to the contract, towing fees begin at $95 for a passenger vehicle, plus a $95 minimum charge for winching services.
In addition, there is a $60 administrative fee.
The Ingram ruling applies across the state, so other police departments also could be affected.
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In Iowa City, the day-to-day impact of the ruling is minimal on department practice, Capt. Bill Campbell said, although he noted the city’s search and seizure policy had been updated to incorporate the guidance of the ruling.
“In recent years, the department has worked to minimize the unnecessary towing of vehicles,” Campbell said in an email. “This practice eliminates costly tow fees for the owner, and keeps police officers available for other assignments.”
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