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A Davenport police officer acted lawfully when he searched his adult stepson without a warrant, once for a weapon and another time after he became suspicious that the 20-year-old was selling marijuana, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The ruling came in an appeal from Christopher Brown, who argued that evidence obtained during two searches by his stepfather, Officer Brent Kilburg, should have been suppressed from his trials on felony gun and drug charges.
Though the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents law enforcement officers in most situations from searching a person without a warrant, the justices unanimously ruled that Kilburg was not acting as an “agent of the government” when he searched his stepson, the court ruled.
“We conclude that Brent was not acting in his capacity as a law enforcement officer during either of the searches,” Justice Bruce Zager wrote. “When initially confronted with with the situations, Brent was at all times acting as a concerned parent and not as a law enforcement officer.”
The justices had never encountered the unusual facts in Brown’s appeal, Zagar wrote. But courts have heard arguments for decades over when, exactly, police and law enforcement officers are acting in their official job capacities rather than as private citizens.
For instance, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that a police officer who also worked as a landlord conducted a legal search when he found drug paraphernalia in a tenant’s apartment and alerted narcotics officers, according to the ruling.
Kilburg physically searched his stepson on Feb. 5, 2015, after Brown’s mother and other family members became concerned that he had stolen a firearm and might be suicidal. The officer found the gun in Brown’s waistband and decided to call two of his supervisors after his wife told him that she’d found marijuana in her son’s backpack, according to the ruling.
Kilburg turned over the backpack to police, and Brown was arrested on two drug charges and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Kilburg searched the trunk of his stepson’s car later that month after becoming concerned that Brown was selling marijuana. Brown was unemployed at the time and living with his mother and stepfather, and both became suspicious when they learned that he’d purchased an Xbox video game console.
Kilburg found a handgun and marijuana in the trunk of his stepson’s car and turned over the evidence to a sheriff’s deputy.
Brown, now 22, was charged again with possession of a controlled substance, being a felon in possession of a firearm and conspiracy to commit a non-forcible felony. After two trials in front of a judge, he was convicted of numerous charges and given a five-year suspended prison sentence at a hearing in August 2015.
“There is no doubt that both of the searches in this case were purely private in nature,” Zagar wrote in the ruling. “In each search, Brent confronted the situation in his capacity as a private citizen — a stepparent — and his conduct moving forward indicated that he continued to act in his role as a concerned parent.”