How Police Conduct Drug Interdiction Investigations

2000px-I-80_(IA)_map.svgThis is a new post about criminal interdiction investigations. Today, I am going to discuss how police conduct drug interdiction investigations during traffic stops on Iowa roads. I will break this topic in two posts. In the first post, I will explain how cops chose what cars they should stop. In the second post, I will discuss what happens to a driver after the officer stops the car.

How do cops choose what cars to stop? First, cops are trained to look for cars that they believe belong to drug smugglers. Of course, for a cop almost any car will look suspicious if they want it to be suspicious.

For example, in Iowa, a car that travels on I-80 from Colorado or another western state is suspicious because police officers assume that Colorado and its western neighbors are “drug source” states. The theory is that drug dealers travel west with money to buy drugs and back east with the drugs. That is why police target out-of-state plated vehicles. In addition to state-of-origin the police also look for other “signs” or “indicators” that a driver might be transporting drugs. These so-called “indicators” often involve perfectly innocent activity.

For instance, a cop trained in drug interdiction may find a driver who has both hands on the steering wheel highly suspicious. Driving 10 miles under the speed limit or staying in the slow lane is suspicious as well. The police might also say they believe that it is suspicious if you drive an old pickup truck which happens to be in good condition. There are any number of completely innocent factors which a trained interdiction officer may find “suspicious”. Of course, common sense tells you that this is complete hogwash. If any of this has you surprised, just click the following link and read about it. Heck, even a driver who is well dressed might be suspicious.

If a cop observes any of these or other “indicators”, he’ll try to stop the car; usually for a minor traffic violation. i.e. driving 1 mph over a speed limit or driving to closely to another car. Even a minor violation gives an officer probable cause to stop a motorist.

Once the car is parked on the side of the highway the second phase of the drug interdiction traffic stop begins. In the next post, I will discuss what cops do during the actual drug interdiction traffic stop. Again, if you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach me at (515) 224-7446.

What is a criminal interdiction investigation?

traffic_stopRecently, I wrote that the Iowa Supreme Court limited the ways in which police can engage in criminal interdiction investigation activity. That post began a series of articles where I intend to discuss different aspects of criminal interdiction investigations. This is the next installment.

To begin this discussion I want to acquaint you with the term interdiction and the general anatomy of a criminal interdiction traffic stop. I have previously blogged about these items but for purposes of this series of blogs I think it makes sense to revisit these items.

Initially, “interdiction” was a military term. In the army, “interdiction” refers to the act of delaying, disrupting, or destroying enemy forces or supplies en route to the battle area. Police believe that roads are their battlegrounds. So . . . cops started to use this term in their work.

In law enforcement, “drug interdiction” involves a continuum of events focused on interrupting illegal drugs smuggled by air, sea, or land. Normally, it consists of several phases— cueing, detection, sorting, monitoring, interception, handover, disruption, endgame, and apprehension—some of which may occur simultaneously.

Criminal interdiction investigation, highway interdiction and drug interdiction are different names used to describe the same activity; a traffic stop made for the purpose of detecting criminal activity unrelated to the traffic-based reason for the stop. Officers are trained to “look beyond the stop” for criminal activity.

Highway interdiction often involves the stop of an out-of-state car for a minor traffic violation, i.e. driving a few miles over the speed limit, following to closely, unlawful window tint, etc. During the stop, the officer engages the driver in “casual conversation” (at least that is how the officer will refer to it in courtroom testimony). This casual conversation is actually a specific part of the interdiction process known as the “interdiction interview”. During the interview the officer watches closely for signs of:

  • general nervousness
  • inconsistent answers or conflicting stories
  • other so-called odd behavior

For the officer these are indicators that the driver and/or passengers are involved in criminal activity. More about that in a later post.

The officer also observes the inside of the vehicle to find other so-called signs of criminal activity including:

  • fast food containers
  • luggage or lack thereof
  • energy drinks
  • cell phones
  • air fresheners
  • law enforcement stickers and posters
  • family photos

At the end of the stop the officer will write the driver a ticket or more likely a warning and tell the driver he/she is free to go. However, immediately thereafter the officer will begin asking questions such as:

  • Do you have drugs in the car
  • Do you have guns in the car
  • Do you have large amounts of cash in the car
  • Do you mind if I search your car
  • Do you mind if I run a dog around your car

When the driver refuses the officer’s attempt at a search, the officer will detain the occupants and call for the drug dog. The dog will invariably “hit” on the car. The officer will then search the car.

This is criminal interdiction investigation and the anatomy of an interdiction stop in a nutshell. In subsequent posts, I will break down all facets of the interdiction stop and explain the significance of each.


102495940-128265358.530x298The U.S. Supreme Court handed interstate travelers a major victory in 2015. On April 21st the Court decided Rodriguez v. United States. Rodriguez holds that cops must limit their investigation during traffic stops to enforcing the traffic laws. If this seems like common sense, it should. However, there are thousands of cops nationwide who are trained to “look beyond” the routine stop for other criminal activity. In other words, they use an old-fashioned traffic stop to conduct an unrelated, suspicion-less criminal investigations. The police have a clever name for this questionable, largely unconstitutional practice: “Criminal Interdiction”. In a series of upcoming posts about criminal interdiction traffic stops I will explore:

In the Matter of Property Seized from Pardee, is an Iowa Supreme Court case I litigated and won. The case involved an interdiction traffic stop. During the stop, $33,100.00 was seized from Robert Pardee. The State forfeited the cash. On December 11, 2015, the forfeiture judgment was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. Pardee will have a significant impact on criminal interdiction in Iowa. I will rely heavily on Pardee to illustrate points throughout the upcoming posts. I have linked to the opinion here.

If you have questions or comments about criminal interdiction traffic stops do not hesitate to contact us. Stowers & Sarcone, PLC.

Can The Police Seize Your Property and Take Your Money?

Can the Cops take your money

This is the million dollar question right?  Or maybe the thousand dollar question. Can the police seize your property and take your money? Under the Fourth Amendment and Article 1 Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution the police need a warrant to seize your property, including your money. If there is probable cause to believe your money is connected to illegal activity and the police obtain a warrant, they can take your money. This includes not only your cash, but also your bank accounts.

The police can also take your money without a warrant if “exigent circumstances” are present. Exigent circumstances generally refer to emergency situations or situations where law enforcement must take immediate action to prevent the loss or destruction of evidence. Exigent circumstances are a specially carved out exception to the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement. Exigent circumstances are inherent in every vehicle stop. Thus, if the police have probable cause to be believe money found in your vehicle is connected to illegal activity they can take it without a warrant. Practically speaking, if the police find a large sum of money in your car they will take it, probable cause or not.  

When the police take your money they do not automatically get to keep it. There is a legal process called civil forfeiture that the money must proceed through before the State can lay final claim to it. You can fight to get it back. At Stowers & Sarcone we have fought for and won the return of hundreds of thousands of dollars for our clients. We have successfully fought for the return of cars, computers, phones and other property too. The key is having an experienced property seizure and forfeiture lawyer. There are a host of reasons that might form the basis for the return of your money. Maybe the warrant was defective. Maybe the money is not connected to illegal activity. Maybe the stop of your vehicle was unconstitutional. Whatever the reason, we will find it. Can the police take your money? YES.  But we are here to help you fight to get it back. Don’t let the cops keep your money. Call Stowers & Sarcone now! (515) 224-7446.


Can The Police Search Your Car Without a Warrant?

Can the police search your car

Can the police search your car without a warrant? The truth is while the police generally need a warrant to search your person, residence and personal property, they need only possess probable cause to search your car. Probable cause means that the police have good reason to believe they will find some evidence of criminal activity in your car. Common examples of probable cause include the smell of marijuana coming from your vehicle, observation of any contraband inside your car or a credible, corroborated report that your car contains something illegal. Without probable cause the police need a warrant or your consent to search your car.


Your car is inherently mobile, meaning it can move and move quickly. The Supreme Court has said that  your cars mobility creates an “exigent circumstance” – in this case a situation which requires swift action to prevent the destruction of evidence – which makes a warrant unnecessary. So if they have probable cause the police can search your car without a warrant and without your consent.


If the police do not possess probable or a warrant, there are three additional situations in which they can search your car.  Those are:

  • A Search Incident to Arrest
  • An Inventory Search
  • A Consent Search


The cops can search your car incident to your arrest if, and only if, you have been arrested and the police have a reasonable suspicion that they will find evidence of the crime for which they arrested you.  Reasonable suspicion is like probable cause but it requires less suspicion and less evidence. Reasonable suspicion to search your car must be related to the crime for which you were arrested. If you are arrested for Operating While Intoxicated and the police see a beer can in your car, they would possess a reasonable suspicion of finding evidence of your operating while intoxicated and could search your car. On the other hand, if you are arrested for driving on a suspended license, reasonable suspicion to search likely would not exist since the only real evidence is the fact you were driving.


If you have been arrested and the police impound your car they can perform a search to inventory it’s contents. Inventory searches are quite common. To be valid the police have an inventory search policy and they must follow the policy. Inventory searches protect the police and the tow company from claims that property taken from the vehicle.


When the police want to search your car but have no legal justification for it, they will ask for your consent to search.  Your consent makes any otherwise unlawful search, lawful. Anytime you give consent you give the police the legal authority to search. Even if the police have an independent legal basis to search your car they may ask for your consent to absolutely ensure the lawfulness of the search. Which bring us to the next important question:


If the police ask for your consent to search your car you may give it or refuse. You cannot be arrested for refusing and you will not face any legal penalties. The 4th Amendment protects your RIGHT to refuse a search. A refusal is not an admission nor evidence of guilt. There are many reasons to refuse to give your consent. Perhaps, you just want to be on your way. Maybe you have something illegal in your car. Whatever the reason you do not have to give your consent.  Refusing a search is YOUR RIGHT!

When you refuse the cops may threaten arrest, tell you its no big deal if you have something illegal in the car or tell you they have some other basis to search.  If the police have another basis they will search anyway and there is no need to give your consent. Do not try and evaluate whether the police have a legal basis for searching your car. Even if they do you can still refuse.  REFUSAL IS YOUR RIGHT!

If the police claim they will not arrest you it is probably a lie. Remember, consent makes an otherwise unlawful search lawful. The officer’s goal is to get your consent, search your car and then arrest you. If you refuse consent and the police search your car anyway then your attorney can file a motion to suppress whatever the police find. If the search was unlawful the evidence will be thrown out. The case will be dismissed if there is no additional evidence.

If you do give your consent you are also free to REVOKE it at anytime. If the police are searching and you decide enough is enough, you can politely tell them you revoke your consent and they must stop searching. Your consent, refusal or revocation is important and you should try to ensure that it is recorded in some fashion. Many cops have dash cams and body mics. Make sure you communicate loudly and clearly so your words are captured by the officer’s body mic. This will assist your attorney.


You should always remain calm and collected. Be polite and courteous. Remember your rights.  You have the RIGHT to REFUSE consent to search. You have the RIGHT to REVOKE previously given consent. Once you refuse ask. “Are you detaining me or am I free to leave?” If you are free to leave, then leave. If you are not, then wait patiently and SILENTLY. The police can search your car without a warrant but you NEVER have to consent!