Iowa Supreme Court reverses itself in speedy indictment cases

By: Rox Laird on May 25th, 2017

A divided Iowa Supreme Court Thursday reversed its 37-year-old precedent on when an “arrest” occurs for purposes of the state’s speedy indictment rule.

In the case before the Court, State v. Deantay Williams, the difference was a matter of 465 days.

Williams was one of five male Waterloo suspects brought in for questioning regarding the gang rape of two 15-year-old girls. Three of the suspects subsequently charged challenged their prosecutions on grounds that Black Hawk County prosecutors failed to file the indictments within the 45 days prescribed by state law. In Williams’s case, it was 510 days.

The Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Mark Cady and joined by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, and Bruce Zager, rejected that argument in all three appeals, laying out its arguments in the Williams opinion. The decision reversed a precedent first established by the Court in 1980 in State v. Schmitt.

Justices Daryl Hecht wrote a dissent joined by Justices David Wiggins and Brent Appel. Wiggins wrote separately in dissent.

Iowa’s speedy indictment rule is designed to give meaning to a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial, Cady wrote. “The purpose of these protections, both constitutional and statutory, is to relieve one accused of a crime of the hardship of indefinite incarceration awaiting trial or the anxiety of suspended prosecution . . . .”

The key question is what starts the clock: The Court held in Schmitt in 1980 that the trigger is “the moment a person is taken into custody.” That was the standard as recently as 2010 when the Court in State v. Wing held that the test should be when a “reasonable person” believes he or she is under arrest.

Iowa’s approach to speedy indictment, unique nationally, has been criticized as leading to inconsistent results. An arrest by itself is not the end of the process, Cady wrote, because Iowa law requires that the suspect be taken from the scene of the arrest to a magistrate.

“This procedure is a vital part of the arrest because it gives the arrested person the most protection,” Cady wrote. “Once the arrested person is before the magistrate, the arrest process is complete, the person is no longer under the control of the arresting officer, and all the rights under the law available to defendants become applicable, including the right to a probable-cause preliminary hearing and the right to a speedy indictment.

In other words, “A speedy indictment is only needed when a defendant is arrested and subsequently held to answer by the magistrate following the arrest.”

In the Waterloo cases, the defendants did not need relief from “the hardship of indefinite incarceration,” or “the anxiety of suspended prosecution” because the police did not file a complaint, and the defendants did not appear before a magistrate for arraignment. Thus, Cady wrote, “dismissing the charges against these defendants does not reflect the aim and purpose of the constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

Justice Mansfield, writing in a special concurring opinion, applauded the majority for drawing a “bright line” rule that clarifies the law for police and prosecutors. Mansfield was particularly critical of the 2010 decision in Wing, which he said “forces the State into the following quandary: Do not take anyone into temporary custody, regardless of the circumstances or the emergency, or else you will have to bring your trial information against that person within 45 days. Thus, Wing, predictably, leads to premature charging decisions.”

Justice Hecht, who wrote the Wing decision, disagreed. The Williams case, he wrote, “starkly illustrates that if being ‘held to answer’ is the trigger for the speedy indictment clock, a perverse incentive arises for law enforcement officers to delay prosecutions — conduct that is antithetical to the important goals of speedy trials.” During the delay of 510 days, “evidence likely grew stale and memories faded while Williams and the others waited, uncertain whether the prosecutions would go forward.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Wiggins blasted the majority for abandoning the principle of stare decisis in this ruling. “Nothing has changed since December 2010, except the members of the court,” Wiggins wrote. [Cady dissented in Wing, and three members of the majority removed by voters in the 2010 retention election were replaced by Justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Zager.]

Wiggins quoted from an earlier opinion by Justice Waterman in which he wrote, “Stare decisis demands greater respect for our precedent.”

“Those words are just as applicable today,” Wiggins wrote. “However, what the majority does today is overrule a prior decision with which they disagree in order to advance their own view of the law.”

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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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