Iowa Supreme Court says convicted child abuser should get police reports that could help him win a new trial

By: Rox Laird on May 14th, 2018

A Black Hawk County man convicted of sexually abusing his granddaughter should have access to police reports that could undermine the credibility of his accuser, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled May 11.

David M. Powers was convicted of sex abuse based on allegations by his granddaughter, identified as K.P. in court records, who said the abuse occurred when she was age 13 and younger. Powers denied the accusations, and family members and a friend testified that she had told lies in the past.

In his petition for post-conviction relief, Powers sought to subpoena Waterloo police investigative reports about an incident that occurred after his trial in which K.P. reported that she had been sexually assaulted by gang members. Powers contended that police officers suspected K.P. had lied about that sexual assault, and he believed that would cast doubt on the truthfulness of her accusations against him.

After reviewing the police reports in camera, however, the District Court quashed the subpoena, saying K.P.’s accusations against the gang members had no relevance to the case against Powers.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in a 4-2 decision, disagreed and sent the case to the District Court and with instructions that Powers have access to the police reports. The majority opinion written by Justice Bruce Zager was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins. Justice Edward Mansfield filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Thomas Waterman. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the case.

The Court noted that the issue was whether the police investigative reports should be made available to Powers, not whether they should be admissible in the post-conviction proceedings. That is for the trial judge to decide, but the Supreme Court said when evidence against a defendant relies almost exclusively on the complaining witness’ testimony, the witness’ credibility may be pivotal.

In Powers’ case, the State had no physical evidence or other witnesses and relied almost exclusively on the testimony of K.P.

“Though the jury did hear evidence from K.P.’s family and a friend that she had a reputation for lying,” Zager wrote, “evidence that K.P. had also made false allegations of sexual abuse against others would likely further undermine her credibility in Powers’s favor.”

In his dissent, Justice Mansfield said K.P.’s alleged false claim – which occurred after Powers’ trial – does not constitute newly discovered material evidence because it would at best be used to impeach her testimony. “Criminal trials have an endpoint, and events that occur after trial – as opposed to new evidence about pretrial events – aren’t a basis for reopening the proceedings,” he wrote.

The majority did concede that evidence of another lie may not have affected Powers’ jury had it been presented at trial, but Zager said Powers is entitled to the police reports now because “a significant argument could be made that evidence showing K.P. made false allegations of sexual abuse against others, at or around the time that the motion for new trial was pending, may have had an impact on the sentencing judge when he or she was considering and deciding the motion for new trial.”

An amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief was submitted to the Court in this case by the Innocence Network, the Innocence Project of Iowa and the Midwest Innocence Project in support of Powers. The brief argued that equal access to exculpatory evidence reduces the imbalance of power between the state and criminal defendants.


Iowa Supreme Court opens door to ‘actual innocence’ claims following guilty pleas

By: Rox Laird on March 27th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a person who pleaded guilty to a crime has a right under the Iowa Constitution to later claim that he or she is, in fact, innocent based on newly discovered evidence.

The Court, in a 4-3 ruling handed down March 23, overturned prior Iowa decisions that limited actual-innocence claims following a guilty plea to only those that attack the constitutional or procedural validity of the guilty plea. With this ruling, a defendant may assert actual innocence based on evidence unrelated to the validity of the plea itself.

The decision in Schmidt v. State of Iowa written by Justice David Wiggins was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel.

The chief justice filed a separate opinion concurring with the judgment. “The process of justice must always be fair,” Cady wrote. “This case stands tall as the embodiment of this fundamental principle of law. It is a substantial step forward in our constitutional march to become better. Innocent people should always have a forum to prove their innocence. I fully concur in the opinion of the Court.”

Justices Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager dissented. “Today’s decision will have bad consequences,” Waterman wrote in his dissenting opinion, “including fewer plea bargains, renewed turmoil for victims and their families years after the crime, and a flood of [post-conviction relief] applications.”

Jacob Schmidt pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, in part on the basis of the testimony of the victim, his younger half-brother. Seven years later, the half-brother recanted his testimony, saying Schmidt had not attempted to sexually abuse him. The Woodbury County District Court dismissed Schmidt’s post-conviction appeal, citing Iowa Supreme Court precedent.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Schmidt’s appeal has been in the making for more than a year. It was first argued in February 2017 but held over to be reargued this term. Meanwhile, the Court asked the parties to submit additional briefs focusing on several questions, including what standard should apply if a guilty plea does not always bar an actual-innocence claim.

The Iowa Supreme Court has historically stressed the finality of a criminal conviction based on a guilty plea that is made knowingly and intelligently and with assistance of counsel. In a 1990 decision, the Court said “notions of newly discovered evidence simply have no bearing on a knowing and voluntary admission of guilt.”

But the Court pointed to recent evidence that innocent people do, in fact, plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, citing a National Registry of Exonerations report that, in 2016, 74 convicted criminals who had pleaded guilty were subsequently exonerated.

“Pleading guilty does not automatically mean the defendant is actually guilty,” Wiggins wrote. “Sometimes, an innocent defendant is choosing the lesser of two evils: pleading guilty despite his or her actual innocence because the odds are stacked up against him or her, or going to trial with the risk of losing and the prospect of receiving a harsher sentence.”

With that in mind, the Court said it was time to open the door to allow those who plead guilty to appeal their convictions based on new evidence. “It is time that we refuse to perpetuate a system of justice that allows actually innocent people to remain in prison,” Wiggins wrote, “even those who profess guilt despite their actual innocence.”

To do that, the Court looked to the Iowa Constitution, which in Article 1 Section 9 says “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and in Article 1 Section 17 prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

“Holding a person who has committed no crime in prison strikes the very essence of the constitutional guarantee of substantive due process,” Wiggins wrote, and punishing a person who is actually innocent is cruel and unusual.

In order to succeed on a claim of actual innocence, the Court said the applicant must show by “clear and convincing evidence that, despite the evidence of guilt supporting the conviction, no reasonable fact finder could convict the applicant of the crimes for which the sentencing court found the applicant guilty in light of all the evidence, including the newly discovered evidence.”

In Schmidt’s case, the Iowa Supreme Court did not take a position on his claim of innocence based on the recanted witness testimony. Rather, it sent the case back to the District Court for further proceedings, as “both parties are entitled to their day in court to litigate their positions under the new standard we have adopted today.”

“Only after the parties develop a record in a summary proceeding can the court decide if a genuine issue of material fact exists,” Wiggins wrote. “If it does, then a trial may be necessary to resolve Schmidt’s claim.”


Search ends at personal belongings in a targeted-warrant case, the Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on January 11th, 2018

Danielle Brown was one of five people in the bedroom of a house when a Des Moines police SWAT team swarmed in to execute a warrant naming a male occupant of the house to be searched for drugs and weapons. Brown was not named in the warrant but police searched her purse and found a small amount of marijuana inside.

She was subsequently convicted of possession of marijuana.

The Iowa Supreme Court Jan. 5 reversed a ruling of the Polk County District Court admitting evidence from the search of Brown’s purse, however, saying it violated the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In an opinion written by Justice Brent Appel joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht, the Court ruled that a person not named in a search warrant has an expectation of privacy for personal effects – such as a purse – that they effectively have in their possession.

Justice Thomas Waterman disagreed with the majority in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager that argued for a clear rule giving police officers flexibility in executing search warrants in such situations.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police with a valid search warrant may search entire premises, including containers. But they may not search a person who is not named in the warrant who happens to be present during the search. Federal and states courts are divided, however, on the question of whether a visitor’s personal effects, such as a purse, may be searched.

Courts have used several tests to assess the legality of searches of visitors’ personal belongings, including whether the person has actual possession, say by wearing a coat or holding a briefcase or clutching a purse.

The Iowa Supreme Court majority rejected such a strict approach in this situation, however.

“A holding of this court that a visitor loses all reasonable expectations of privacy when visiting a premises by hanging a coat on a rack or placing a purse on a chair or on the floor, simply does not comport with reality,” Appel wrote. “A visitor who placed her purse on a sofa would be shocked to learn that her host, let alone government agents, was free to rummage around the purse looking for interesting or entertaining items while the visitor was in the other room.”

When Des Moines police were conducting the search, Brown was kneeling with her arms handcuffed behind her back, and her purse was on the floor nearby.

The majority said the legal theory of “constructive possession” should be applied in this case, which means that even though Brown was not holding the purse in her hands she was in “constructive, if not actual possession of the purse.” Thus, it was off limits to the police.

Writing for the three justices in dissent, however, Waterman said there were good reasons why Brown should have been covered by the search warrant.

When Des Moines police entered the bedroom at 5:45 a.m. Brown was smoking methamphetamine, Waterman pointed out, and she was “participating in an illegal activity directly related to the sale of methamphetamine, which was the reason for searching the house.”

Other courts, he said, rely on visitors’ perceived connection to the activity targeted by a warrant to uphold a search of the visitors’ personal effects.

He said the Iowa Supreme Court has traditionally preferred bright-line rules when police officers have to make quick decisions in balancing public safety and individual rights. “Such clarity and ease of application is especially important during chaotic police raids on a drug den,” he said.

In short, Waterman wrote: “In my view, the search of Brown’s purse was constitutional.”


Supreme Court’s lottery ruling a lesson for Iowa law enforcement

By: Rox Laird on June 23rd, 2017

Law enforcement authorities who dilly-dally in investigating crimes face the prospect of losing at trial because the statute of limitations clock has run out, the Iowa Supreme ruled Friday.

The Court threw out the 2015 conviction of Eddie Tipton, a former Multistate Lottery Association security expert who used his knowledge of random-selection computer coding to rig a drawing and then tried to collect a $16.5 million winning Hot Lotto jackpot.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Brent Appel joined by all justices except Edward Mansfield, who disagreed with one part of the 70-page decision while concurring with the rest.

Friday’s decision comes too late for Tipton, who is scheduled to plead guilty to a similar lottery-rigging charge on June 29. But it is a cautionary tale for law-enforcement officials, prosecutors and trial judges to consider in future cases.

A Polk County jury convicted Tipton of two felonies: fraudulently tampering with lottery equipment and fraudulently attempting to redeem a lottery ticket.

Tipton challenged his conviction on a number of grounds, all of which were rejected by the Supreme Court. But Friday’s decision focused most extensively on the issue of the statute of limitations, which gives the government a deadline by which criminal prosecutions must begin.

Quoting earlier court decisions, Appel said these statutory deadlines are “designed to protect individuals from having to defend themselves against charges when the basic facts may have become obscured by the passage of time.” Yet they also “have the salutary effect of encouraging law enforcement officials promptly to investigate suspected criminal activity.”

The trial judge dismissed Tipton’s contention that the state missed the three-year statute of limitations in his case, citing exceptions in the state criminal code for crimes that amount to “continuing offenses,” and a specific exemption for fraud.

The Supreme Court disagreed, however.

Relying on earlier Iowa decisions, the Court said there is nothing explicit in state law that says fraudulent “uttering, passing and redeeming, and tampering with intent to influence” are continuing offenses. “Unlike classic continuing offenses such as kidnapping, bigamy, or possession,” Appel wrote, “the evil sought to be prohibited does not inherently continue on a daily basis” with those crimes.

One key question for setting the statute-of-limitations clock: At what point did the state discover, or should it have discovered, that Tipton tampering with a lottery computers to rig the drawing? The answer is whether the state exercised due diligence in its investigation. If the answer is yes, the state would have been entitled to a one-year extension of the statute of limitations.

The Court, however, said the state failed to show that it showed the necessary due diligence in the Tipton investigation, taking more than three years pursuing leads that could easily have been achieved earlier.

“An effort to unlawfully obtain millions of dollars in lottery winnings is a serious crime,” Appel wrote. “Multistate lottery funds provide a significant source of revenue for the participating states. Such revenues are dependent upon the integrity of the lottery program.” And the Legislature has emphasized the need for the lottery to operate with integrity.

“Finally,” he wrote, “there can be no question of the moral culpability of an offender attempting to swindle the lottery. In its investigation, the State must act with due diligence in light of the seriousness of the crime in order to avail itself of the one-year extension of the statute of limitations.”


Anonymous Tips and Juvenile Sentencing: A Criminal End to the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2012-2013 Term

By: Administrator on March 11th, 2013

By Ryan Koompans

Before wrapping up its 2012-2013 oral argument calendar in April, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear two constitutional cases with potential national consequences.

Tomorrow, the seven-member court will travel to Sioux City to hear argument in State v. Kooima.  At issue: whether, under the Fourth Amendment, a police officer may stop a vehicle based solely on an anonymous tip that the driver is drunk.  That issue has split state and federal courts, meaning that the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision (whichever way it goes) may be ripe for U.S. Supreme Court review.

Then, on April 9, the Court will hear argument in State v. Ragland. At issue there: whether a mandatory sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 60 years for a juvenile murderer amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.  Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that states may not automatically sentence juvenile murders to life without the possibility of parole.  Following that ruling, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad commuted the sentences of 38 juvenile murderers from life without parole, to life with the possibility of parole after 60 years.  Several of those offenders, including Jeffrey Ragland, think that’s still too long under Miller. Depending on what the Iowa Supreme Court says, this case could also end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.


On Brief

About Us

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.



Links