Iowa Supreme Court reverses high school coach’s conviction for sexual exploitation

By: Administrator on April 14th, 2014

By Ryan Koopmans

It’s a crime in Iowa for a “school employee”–defined as “an administrator, teacher, or other licensed professional”–to have sexual contact with a student.  On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a high school basketball coach who holds a coaching authorization, but not a teaching license, isn’t a “licensed professional” and is thus not a school employee for purposes of the sexual-exploitation statute.

While coaching high school girls basketball for Davis County School, Patrick Nicoletto developed a sexual relationship with one of his players that lasted several months.  When that came to light, Nicoletto was charged and convicted of sexual exploitation and sentenced to five years in prison.

Nicoletto appealed, arguing that he doesn’t fit within the technical definition of school employee because he’s not an administrator, a teacher, or a licensed professional; he’s just a part-time coach.  But Nicoletto does have a coaching authorization–a designation that requires a total of five credit hours of coursework in physiology, child development, injury care and prevention, and coaching theory–and so the State argued that this authorization makes him a “licensed professional.”

A majority of the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with Nicoletto.  Justice Appel writing (joined by Chief Justice Cady and Justices Wiggins, Hecht, and Zager), the majority of the Court concluded that “the ordinary meaning of the term ‘licensed professional'” does not include “a person who merely holds a coaching authorization.”  A professional, Justice Appel explained, is someone who’s gone through extensive schooling, not a mere weekend’s worth of classes.

The Court also concluded that a coaching authorization isn’t a license, because it doesn’t give the holder the power to do something that others can’t.  Those who have a license to practice law, can practice law; those who don’t, can’t.  Those who have a license to drive, can drive; those who don’t, can’t.  On the other hand, Iowa law doesn’t require that all coaches have a coach’s authorization; those who volunteer their time can coach all they want, so long as the school district is happy to have them.  Since the relevant code chapter defines license as the “exclusive authority to perform [the listed] functions,” and a coaching authorization doesn’t bestow exclusivity–at least if you include volunteers–the majority ruled Nicoletto wasn’t licensed.

Justice Appel seemed to concede that excluding coaches like Nicoletto might not be what the legislature intended, but channeling (and citing) Justice Scalia, Justice Appel emphasized that the Court cannot “speculate about probable legislative intent without regard to the wording of the statute”; instead, “any determination must be based upon what the legislature actually said rather than on what it might have said or should have said.”

Justice Waterman dissented and Justice Mansfield joined him. For them, the majority’s interpretation of “licensed professional” was too “hypertechnical”: “A ‘coaching authorization’ is simply a form of ‘license’” and “[c]ommon definitions of ‘professional’ plainly include trained coaches paid to do their job.”  By limiting the professional label to those “learned professions requiring advanced degrees,” Justice Waterman argued that the majority wasn’t applying the common usage of the term: “You can hire a professional painter to touch up your living room ceiling or do it yourself. The painter does not need a doctorate to be a professional” and “[t]here is no contextual indication the legislature intended a narrow definition for ‘licensed professional’” in the sexual exploitation statute.

The Court’s decision, Justice Waterman said, “will surprise school officials, parents, and coaches who had assumed the [sexual exploitation] law that made it illegal for a teacher to engage in sexual activity with students also applies to coaches.”  And with an idiom fitting for the case, Justice Waterman declared that the “ball is now in the legislature’s court to amend section 709.15 to close this new loophole.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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