Police Need Warrant to Open Locked Safe In Car

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: criminal law, search and seizure.

State of Iowa v. Jesse Michael Gaskins. IA criminal law, search and seizure

During a routine traffic stop, a Davenport police officer smelled marijuana and confiscated a small amount of marijuana. After the motorist and passenger were placed in the squad car, the officer searched the vehicle, which revealed a small portable locked safe. The key to the safe was found on the keyring in the ignition, and the officers opened the safe. Inside, additional marijuana and a gun were found. At his trial in Scott County, the defendant, Jesse Michael Gaskins, moved to suppress the evidence found in the safe. The motion was denied, he was convicted, and he appealed. The appeal was ultimately heard by the Iowa Supreme Court, which reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

The state argued that the search was incident to a lawful arrest, which the Supreme Court noted applies only if the arrestee is within reaching distance at the time of the search or if it is reasonable to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense for which the person was arrested. The state argued that the safe was the same as a duffel bag or backpack, of which such a search would be allowed. The defendant argued that the case was different, because the safe was locked.

After examining cases from other jurisdictions, the Iowa high court concluded that the defendant's "reaching distance" was the key factor. It noted that the officer had testified that there was no way that the defendant could have retrieved anything from the locked safe in the dquad car. The court therefore did not reach the issue of whether the box's locked status was dispositive.

No. 13-1915 (Iowa June 30, 2015).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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