Court: Iowa parole deals can’t mandate searches

IOWA CITY – Iowa’s routine practice of requiring offenders being paroled to agree to submit to random, warrantless searches is unconstitutional, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

A standard contract that inmates must sign before being released on parole typically contains several conditions such as agreeing to abstain from drugs and to get approval of parole officers before moving. It also states he or she must agree to undergo searches of themselves, their vehicles or their belongings by parole officers or police “at any time, with or without a search warrant.”

The court ruled 5-2 that the requirement is invalid. Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Mark Cady said the provision violates the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures spelled out in the Iowa Constitution.

Offenders should not be required to surrender their constitutional rights as a condition of freedom, Cady wrote.

“Parole is simply one of those times when a choice to remain in prison with no constitutional rights involving search and seizure or to gain freedom with no constitutional rights involving search and seizure is simply ‘no choice at all’,” he said.

The ruling came in a case involving convicted felon Isaac Baldon, now 35, who agreed to face warrantless searches before he was paroled on drug and gun charges in November 2008.

Police found Baldon’s vehicle in 2009 during a routine patrol of a parking lot at a Bettendorf motel known for illegal drugs, prostitution and other crimes. They notified his parole officer, then knocked on Baldon’s door and told him the parole agreement allowed them to search his room and vehicle. They found a large quantity of marijuana in his car that Baldon later told police he was planning to sell.

Baldon was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver as a repeat offender. A judge denied his motion to suppress the evidence found during the search of his vehicle and found him guilty. Friday’s ruling overturns Baldon’s conviction and orders a new trial. His attorney, appellate defender Mark Smith, said the charge may have to be dismissed without the marijuana evidence unless prosecutors find a way to “get around the bad search.”

“The court basically said this blanket provision that says, ‘you can search me any time whether or not you think I’m doing anything wrong’ is not going to be valid,” he said.

Dissenting Justice Edward Mansfield said parole is a privilege and requiring offenders to agree to contracts spelling out rules and expectations is “an important part of the rehabilitative process.” He said he fears the ruling will discourage corrections officials from granting parole to inmates who deserve it, and make it harder to monitor parolees’ behavior.

“The majority’s rule raises the costs of detecting and deterring recidivism by telling the state if it releases a convicted drug dealer, it may not be able to do a parole check on that dealer if he chooses to stay at a motel that is a drug haven instead of being at the residence where he is supposed to be,” he wrote.