Déjà Vu At The Iowa Supreme Court

Sep 7, 2016

It was déjà vu at the Iowa Supreme Court, which held the first oral arguments of its 2016-17 term today. Justices heard a drunken-boating case for the second time as a result of a U.S Supreme Court ruling from June.

That federal ruling found that law enforcement can arrest drivers who don't submit to breathalyzer tests, but also determined blood tests to be unconstitutional. The Iowa case concerns breath-sobriety testing and drunken boating.

In 2013 Dale Pettijohn was charged with operating his pontoon boat on Polk County's Saylorville Lake while intoxicated. Pettijohn contends he was coerced into taking the breath test which, according to court documents, revealed his blood-alcohol level to be 0.194. 

Pettijohn argues that Iowa doesn’t require boaters to have a license as it does for automobile drivers, so his warrantless test was unconstitutional. In other words, since the state doesn't grant permission to use waterways, law enforcement need a warrant to legally compel someone to undergo intoxication testing.

Pettijohn's attorney Grant Gangestad told the court due to Iowa's electronic filing system, law enforcement can request a warrant in only "a couple of minutes" from their squad cars. 

"I don't believe with the advances in technology that there is a great concern that there's not going to be enough time to procure a warrant," says  Gangestad. 

Iowa Assistant Attorney General Louie Sloven argued the case for the state. He says it's law enforcement’s job to insure public safety so a warrant wasn’t needed, especially because blood alcohol levels decrease over time.

"Whether they're driving a car on the highways, or operating a motorboat on our waterways," says Sloven, "[breath testing] is part of essential safeguards." 

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 91 of the nation's 626 recreational-boating deaths in 2015 were alcohol related. Of the three recreational-boating fatalities in Iowa, alcohol use was a contributing factor in one.