Iowa Supreme Court preview: Is Iowa’s law protecting hog confinements from lawsuits unconstitutional?

By: Rox Laird on February 9th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 12 in a case that could dramatically affect all legal disputes between rural residents and livestock confinement operators. The session is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines to accommodate members of the public.

The justices will hear oral arguments in one case – Honomichl v. Valley View Swine – on whether an Iowa statute that gives livestock operations limited immunity from nuisance liability violates the inalienable rights clause in Article I, Section 1 of the Iowa Constitution.

A ruling striking down the statute could open the door to more lawsuits against confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across the state. The pork industry already faces numerous suits, according to the defendant-appellants, who say there have been as many as 15 individual nuisance suits pending at one time in nine Iowa counties involving hundreds of plaintiffs.

The lawsuit that led to this appeal was initially filed by 70 individual plaintiffs, subsequently divided into three groups by the trial court with designated “bellwether” plaintiffs representing each group. The plaintiff-appellees testified in depositions that odors from the nearly 10,000 hogs confined nearby prevent outdoor activities, such as cookouts or hanging out laundry, and cause headaches and nose and throat irritations.

The parties’ arguments are bolstered by two amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs filed with the Iowa Supreme Court, one in support of the defendant-appellants by the Iowa Pork Producers Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, and one in support of the plaintiff-appellees by the Iowa Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group.

At the heart of the case is Iowa Code section 657.11, which says an animal-feeding operation “shall not be found to be a public or private nuisance” so long as it complies with State and federal laws and regulations. An exception is made for a confinement facility that both “unreasonably and for substantial periods of time” interferes with a person’s “comfortable use and enjoyment of the person’s life or property” and that fails to use “existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation.”

The defendants, who built hog-confinement buildings on two sites in Wapello County in 2013, appeal a ruling on pre-trial motions by Wapello County District Judge Annette Scieszinski that the immunity statute is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs, who have lived in their homes since before the hog-confinement buildings were erected.

The Wapello County trial court’s ruling is based on a 2004 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, Gacke v. Pork Xtra, which found the immunity statute unconstitutional under the takings clause of the Iowa Constitution because it amounted to taking private property for the benefit of confinement operators without just compensation.

The Court in Gacke limited the holding as it applied to the plaintiffs in that suit based on their proximity to the hog facility, how long they had lived there, how much they had invested in their property and whether they received any direct benefits from the confinement facility.

The hog-confinement operators argue that the Wapello County District Court wrongly ruled that the statute likewise violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs in this case because the trial court did not base its ruling on a factual analysis specific to the Wapello County plaintiffs.

“The ruling purports to follow in the footsteps of the Gacke Court in holding the statute unconstitutional ‘as applied’ to plaintiffs,” they argue in a brief submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court. “However, unlike Gacke, the ruling is devoid of facts and analysis necessary to establish an ‘as applied’ challenge sufficient to overcome the presumption of validity afforded to section 657.11 and all statutes enacted by the General Assembly.”

The confinement operators urge the Court to affirm the constitutionality of section 657.11, which they argue strikes a proper balance between the rights of neighbors and farmers and is an appropriate use of the Legislature’s powers to protect a vital Iowa industry from being assaulted by lawsuits.

The neighboring residents, in a brief submitted to the Court, say the trial court reached the correct conclusion and they urge the Iowa Supreme Court to uphold it. But they urge the Court to go further and declare the statute unconstitutional on its face “because it unduly oppresses an individual’s right to use and enjoy property by denying her right to recover for an injury to the same.”

The Pork Producers and Iowa Farm Bureau, in their amicus brief, urge the Court to clarify Gacke to take into account more stringent regulations of animal-confinement operations that have been enacted since that decision was handed down 14 years ago.

“Because of the drastic changes in statutory and regulatory requirements for livestock facilities since the Gacke case,” the brief argues, “it is no longer workable or effective to compare plaintiffs in today’s nuisance cases to the Gackes in determining constitutionality of the statute because the Gacke facts would be impossible to repeat under the current statutory and regulatory requirements.”

Indecent-exposure conviction required physical presence, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on February 6th, 2018

The Iowa Legislature did not make clear that the crime of indecent exposure could be committed by sending a text message, the Iowa Supreme Court said in a Feb. 2 decision.

The Court overturned the indecent-exposure conviction of Jose Lopez in Buchanan County District Court for sending a text message containing an image of his genitals to a woman he had been romantically pursuing against her wishes.

The question before the Court:  Does Iowa’s indecent-exposure statute make it illegal to send an electronic image of one’s genitals to a person who does not welcome the message, or must the person doing the exposing be in the physical presence of the victim?

The Court, in the unanimous decision written by Justice Daryl Hecht, said a physical presence is required.

The decision turned on the meaning of “exposes,” and the Court concluded that the term, for purposes of interpreting the statute, does not mean an image sent by electronic means, such as a cell phone text.

Since the statute does not define the term “exposes,” the Court turned to the dictionary, which defines the word as “to lay open to view,” “lay bare,” “make known,” “set forth.”

“However, nothing in the dictionary definition or our prior caselaw explicitly addresses whether causing one’s genitals to be visible or open to view is limited to only in-person scenarios or if it can be done through electronic communication,” Hecht wrote.

The State argued that “one exposes one’s genitals by transmitting an image of them via text message because the image is made visible for a recipient,” while Lopez argued that transmitting an image of one’s genitals to another person does not equate to exposure.

The Court, finding both views plausible, concluded the statute is ambiguous and turned to the process of statutory interpretation.

In a 1983 decision, State v. Bauer, the Court said the Legislature’s purpose in drafting the indecent-exposure statute was to render indecent exposure “essentially a visual assault crime.”

Thus, Hecht wrote, “Because the offense of indecent exposure constitutes a crime of visual assault, we conclude the meaning of the word exposes in [the indecent-exposure statute] must be understood as having features of temporal and physical proximity.”

The Court, however said in a footnote that its decision is “narrow and limited to the electronic transmission of a still image of the sender’s genitals or pubes. Our conclusion in this case does not address a situation in which the sender’s genitals or pubes are viewed via a real-time electronic transmission, such as through Skype, FaceTime, or similar technology.”

Iowa Supreme Court reduces frivolous litigation penalty assessed against a party.

By: Rox Laird on January 29th, 2018

A trial court’s sanction for frivolous litigation in a protracted legal battle over a Johnson County land development was reduced by the Iowa Supreme Court. The sanction was levied against the party pressing the litigation, not his lawyer. And the bill for tying up the courts with the case for seven years will cost him $30,000.

Ordinarily a frivolous litigation sanction goes against the lawyer, but in some cases the party bringing the litigation can be made to bear the cost. This is one such case.

Carl Fobian, president of Fobian Farms Inc., pursued the lengthy and complex litigation after it was discovered that, because of a surveyor’s error, a restaurant was built 1 foot over property line onto land in which he had a mortgage interest.

The faulty survey ultimately was corrected and Fobian was compensated for the encroachment, but not before the case was twice reviewed by the Iowa Court of Appeals and twice remanded to the trial court.

Along the way there was a steady stream of claims, counter-claims, cross-claims, motions, resistances, pleadings and re-pleadings that stretched over seven years. An aggravating factor was that the trial court saw Fobian’s actions as a scheme to get title to the restaurant, and the scheme included a lawsuit characterized as “bullying” the surveyors into retracting an affidavit correcting the survey error.

The lengthy litigation so tried the patience of the trial judge that he assessed $145,000 in legal fees and expenses against Fobian personally.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling handed down Jan. 26, reduced the amount of the sanction against Fobian. Writing for the Court, Justice Thomas Waterman said the Court of Appeals settled the question of whether the sanction against the party was appropriate, so the question before the justices was how much.

In the opinion for the majority joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield, Daryl Hecht and Bruce Zager, Waterman said the sanction needed to be high enough to deter the party from abusing the system but not the full $145,000, which included legitimate legal fees expended in the case. Thus, the Court settled on $30,000.

“The misconduct in this case was willful and not a mere isolated event,” Waterman wrote. Iowa court rules allow a trial judge “to sanction a represented party instead of or in addition to the lawyer who signed the pleading,” he said, adding that “a monetary sanction imposed on a represented party sends a message that can assist lawyers counseling other clients to refrain from filing improper or frivolous pleadings.”

Justice David Wiggins filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Brent Appel, in which he objected to the idea of sanctioning the party rather than his lawyer.

“Courts should hold attorneys, not their clients, accountable for filing frivolous lawsuits.” Wiggins wrote. “The only exception to this general rule is where clients have knowledge of their attorneys’ wrongdoing.”

Iowa Supreme Court makes a call for the State in ‘Field of Dreams’ film case

By: Rox Laird on January 22nd, 2018

The Iowa Economic Development Authority had the authority to claw back tax credits approved for a documentary film about Iowa’s mystical Field of Dreams baseball story, the Iowa Supreme Court said in a ruling handed down Jan. 19.

The Economic Development Authority revoked economic-development tax credits it had approved for Ghost Player, a film company making a documentary called “Field of Dreams Ghost Players,” after a State investigation concluded that financial support for the project had been fabricated to inflate the value of credits by $250,000.

Ghost Player sued, and the Polk County District Court ruled in its favor, saying the State was precluded from revoking the tax credits because the Economic Development Authority’s initial approval of the credits was a final agency decision.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision by Justice Brent Appel, disagreed and overturned the lower court.

The issue is a matter of administrative procedure: Was the Economic Development Authority precluded, as a matter of law, from reversing its earlier approval and clawing back the tax credits? Ghost Player argued it was, because the original approval of tax credits was a final agency decision. The State argued that its action approving the credits was an administrative, not an adjudicative, process, and thus subject to reconsideration.

In siding with the State, the Supreme Court cited two of its own precedents – Bennett v. MC and George v. Zinser – which tied the legal doctrine of claim preclusion to judicial-style actions that have procedural rights for applicants and an adversarial process, as opposed to administrative actions that have neither.

Justice Appel said the Iowa Supreme Court has not used a bright-line rule in these cases, but the Iowa statute and the administrative rules regulating the film tax credits in this case clearly show the agency’s original action was an administrative, not adjudicative, proceeding.

“Adjudications are ordinarily a three-cornered proposition, with contesting parties jousting before a passive third-party tribunal,” Appel wrote. “Here, the parties were binary. There were no adversaries making arguments and proving their cases before a third party as is generally required for adjudication. The IDED staff were acting more like tax accountants than adjudicators.”

Thus, in this case, the umpire’s call goes to the State.

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.”

Question to Iowa Supreme Court: Who are the legal parents of a child born of a surrogate mother?

By: Rox Laird on December 19th, 2017

A case before the Iowa Supreme Court this term poses profound questions of law, biology, genetics and human rights:

Who are the legal parents of a child produced from donated genetic material and born of a surrogate mother?

The parties characterize the case as a choice between enforcing a straightforward legal contract and legalizing the sale of children as commodities.

P.M. and C.M., as they are identified in the court documents, are a married couple who entered into a gestational surrogacy contract with a woman, T.B., using anonymously donated ova fertilized by P.M.’s sperm. T.B. gave birth to twins 13 weeks prematurely, and one twin died eight days later. T.B did not inform the Ms of the births and, after bonding with the surviving infant, she changed her mind about giving up the child, identified as Baby H.

The Ms sued to enforce the contract and to terminate T.B.’s parental rights, arguing that P.M. is the biological father as confirmed by genetic test results that ruled out T.B. as the mother. The Linn County District Court ruled in their favor on summary judgment.

In her appeal, T.B. argues that she is legally the mother of the child – as a matter of biological and scientific fact – that the contract with the Ms is unenforceable absent an Iowa statute recognizing such gestational surrogacy contracts. She further argues that enforcing the contract would violate her constitutional rights of due process and equal protection and those of the child.

The Court heard oral arguments in the case on Dec. 13, and the exchanges between the justices and the appellate lawyers revealed the complex legal and scientific challenges involved in defining motherhood in the age of in vitro fertilization.

In fact, four parties named in this appeal have a legal, genetic, biological or emotional interest in the child:

  • The man, who donated the sperm, who with his wife had a contract to take possession of the child at birth.
  • The woman who carried the baby to term, nursed and cared for her for three-and-a-half months, and her husband.

A fifth person arguably may have an interest, as well: the anonymous woman who donated the ova.

The justices came prepared with questions:

If the surrogate mother wins, does the genetic father have a right to visitation? Does he pay child support? Do ordinary contract principles apply to an agreement regarding the birth and parentage of a child? What right did the Ms have to enter into this contract? What right did the surrogate mother have to break it? What about artificial insemination and birth outside the womb, should the science permit?

What legal principles should guide the Court in the absence of a clear judicial precedent or statutory law regarding gestational surrogacy? Should the Court establish those principles, or leave that to the Legislature?

Early the oral argument, Justice Thomas Waterman posed a question to Harold Cassidy, the surrogate mother’s lawyer: Is this a case of buying and selling individuals?

That issue emerged throughout the argument, as Cassidy repeated the assertion that the surrogacy contract is the equivalent of selling a child: “This is a case of manufacturing a child in exchange for money,” he said at one point. “If that is not the exchange of a child for money, I don’t know what is.”

Justice David Wiggins posed several questions about the legal basis for the surrogacy contract: Where, he asked, does the law say that just because you carried the child that makes you the mother?

Cassidy: The Iowa Legislature has not addressed that question, but the science says the fact that she carries the child, she is the mother. That has always been considered the core of civilized society.

Wiggins: This is the first case that has come to the Court where the mother is not genetically related to the child. “Are you telling me genetic material doesn’t mean anything?”

Cassidy: We have scientific evidence that she is the mother.

Philip DeKoster, the attorney representing P.M. and C.M., rejected the idea that the surrogacy contract amounted to selling a child. There is no genetic connection between surrogate mother and the child, he said. There is no criminality; this is not selling children. The genetic materials were the Ms’ to sell and then the child would come back to them.

Justice Edward Mansfield, noting the elaborate law of adoption in Iowa, said he found the lack of due process in surrogacy contract curious: “Here, you had a contract.” He said. “That’s it, no due process. Isn’t that one-sided? Isn’t that kind of a strange way for the law to work?”

Justice Brent Appel dug into the idea of children as commodities: “My problem with this case is that we all agree that you can’t sell children,” he said. “On the other hand, we agree you can sell corn as a commodity. This is not the sale of a child. It is not the sale of corn. It is somewhere in between. What I’m struggling with is that the law hasn’t anticipated, and the Iowa Code hasn’t anticipated, this sort of case.”

Cassidy urged the court not to fill in the blanks left by the Legislature, however. The legal rules for surrogacy should be based careful consideration by a legislative body after years of study. “This Court should not write it for them,” he said.”

Cassidy made a similar argument in his brief submitted to the Court:

“The terms of the surrogacy contract has as one of its principle aims the destruction and elimination of the mother-child relationship,” he wrote. “It is intended to deprive the child of the mother who carried the child in utero, with whom the child bonded, and learned to know, and love. The cherished role of a mother and her relationship with her child, at every moment of life, has intrinsic worth and beauty. This relationship, its unselfish nature and its role in the survival of the race, is the touchstone and core of all civilized society. Its denigration is the denigration of the human race. The decision of the State of Iowa to set on any irreversible course that deprives children of their mother is not one for the court.”

In response, DeKoster in his appellate brief argued the District Court got it right:

“The District Court correctly recognized that Iowa Law — both statutory and case law — treats the genetic (or biological) connection as the defining factor for parentage…. Parentage in Iowa turns solely on genetics. The Iowa legislature defines a ‘parent’ as ‘a biological or adoptive mother or father of a child….’ Black’s Law Dictionary defines ‘biological father’ as ‘the man whose sperm impregnated the child’s biological mother.’ It defines ‘biological mother’ as ‘[t]he woman who provides the egg that develops into an embryo. With today’s genetic-engineering techniques, the biological mother may not be the birth mother, but she is usually the legal mother.’ These definitions, again, indicate genetics, not gestation, is key.”

Iowa Supreme Court: Trial judge erred on removing a biased juror, but the verdict stands

By: Rox Laird on December 4th, 2017

A trial judge committed error when he ruled against dismissing a potential juror who objected to the defendant’s sexual orientation, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 1.

The judge’s “abuse of discretion” did not result in a reversal of the jury’s verdict that the defendant was guilty of second-degree murder, but the Supreme Court in State of Iowa v. Stephen Robert Jonas established a new standard on when such errors should be considered prejudicial.

The Court in an opinion by Justice Brent Appel unanimously affirmed Jonas’ conviction, but three justices concurred in a separate opinion in which they disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the District Court erred in denying the motion to disqualify the juror for cause.

Jonas was convicted of stabbing Zachery Paulson to death in 2014 in an encounter that came after Paulson had rejected Jonas’ sexual advances. Prospective jurors were asked whether the fact that Jonas is gay would affect their ability to fairly and impartially weigh the evidence.

One juror admitted the defendant’s sexual orientation could affect his thinking. In response to questions from Polk County District Judge Paul Scott as to whether that would cause him to be prejudiced against Jonas, the juror responded: “Again, I don’t think it would be determined whether he was guilty or innocent, but I would still have a bias there some place, yes.”

The trial judge rejected the defendant’s motion to have the juror removed for cause, so Jonas’ counsel used one of his 10 peremptory strikes to remove the juror.

Jonas’ appeal presented two questions: First, was it an abuse of discretion for the trial court to reject the motion to remove the juror for cause, thus forcing Jonas’ counsel to unnecessarily expend a peremptory strike? Second, if so, did that prejudice Jonas’ defense?

Appel said the Iowa Supreme Court has traditionally deferred to trial judges’ discretion on removing jurors for cause. But he cited a 1912 ruling in which the Court said “it is far better to give the accused the benefit of the doubt, to the end that he and all other men may be satisfied that his rights have not been invaded.”

In the Jonas decision, the majority said a juror should be dismissed for cause in a case where a potential juror “initially repeatedly expresses actual bias against the defendant based on race, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation, both in a pretrial questionnaire and in voir dire.”

Until recent years, Iowa has held that such an abuse of discretion by the trial court was presumed to be prejudicial, because defendant should not be deprived of full number of peremptory challenges.

But the Iowa Supreme Court reversed course in a 1993 ruling in State v. Neuendorf in which the Court concluded that the existence of prejudice was “too speculative to justify overturning the verdict of the jury.”

Appel noted this issue “has obviously confounded the courts for some time.” In the end, the majority concluded that Iowa should adopt the practice of Texas and Florida courts where a defendant must ask for an additional peremptory strike when the trial court improperly refuses to disqualify a potential juror.

Since that option was not exercised by Jonas, however, the Court upheld his conviction. And that is where the decision should have ended, according to Justice Thomas Waterman’s concurring opinion joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager.

“I disagree with majority’s conclusion that the District Court abused its discretion by denying Jonas’s motion to disqualify the juror for cause,” Waterman wrote. “In my view, the District Court acted within its discretion. I would affirm Jonas’s conviction on that basis and leave the rest of the majority’s discussion for another case and another day.”

Taxing one stepchild but not another does not violate equal protection, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on November 27th, 2017

Iowa tax law does not run afoul of the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution in treating certain stepchildren differently than others for inheritance-tax purposes, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in Tyler & Alcorn vs. Iowa Department of Revenue.

The distinction is whether a stepchild’s parent was married to the stepparent whose estate is distributed after death.

The stepfather of Paula Tyler and Mark Alcorn left his $1.8 million estate to the two children he had raised as his own, and to their mother to whom he had been married for 35 years before divorcing. Because the divorce occurred before their stepfather’s death, Paula and Mark were assessed $203,000 in inheritance tax.

Had their mother and stepfather been married at the time of his death, there would have been no tax due, and the appellants argued that is an equal-protection violation.

The Supreme Court disagreed in a unanimous decision by Justice Edward Mansfield handed down on Nov. 17.

For the purposes of this appeal, the Court assumed that Paula and Mark are “similarly situated” with stepchildren whose parent and stepparent were not divorced. The question, then, is whether treating the two classes of stepchildren differently on inheritance taxes is “rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”

On that question, the Court agreed with the State’s position that it has a legitimate interest in promoting family relationships and close connections among relatives.

The preferential tax treatment is “intended to promote and preserve the family relationship while balancing that interest against the goal of raising revenue,” Mansfield wrote for the Court. “Favorable tax treatment of intrafamily transfers, at the most basic level, allows more assets to remain within the family. This strengthens the family and helps the family maintain financial security. Such tax laws also incentivize persons to keep their wealth within that group rather than transferring it outside.”

Mansfield noted that none of the parties to this case argued that inheritance tax laws should treat all beneficiaries the same, or that they cannot favor family over non-family beneficiaries. Indeed, the stepchildren’s mother also was assessed the inheritance tax on her share of her ex-husband’s estate.

The Court acknowledged it is difficult to draw precise lines to achieve fairness in taxation, but uniformity can also lead to unfairness. “For example,” Mansfield wrote, “if the child of a decedent’s ex-spouse is constitutionally entitled to preferential inheritance tax treatment, why not a decedent’s nephew, niece, or foster child?”

Oral argument recap: Justices hear the case for and against prosecuting a child as an adult

By: Rox Laird on November 16th, 2017

Justices of the Iowa Supreme Court grappled in an oral argument Tuesday with the question of prosecuting a 13-year-old as an adult under Iowa’s youthful offender statute.

Noah Crooks, who was convicted of killing his mother when he was 13, was waived by a Mitchell County District judge to be tried in adult court as a youthful offender. Crooks was held at the State Training School until he was 18, at which point he returned to District Court where he was sentenced to up to 50 years in prison. (Read our preview of State v. Noah Crooks here.)

Crooks’ appellate counsel, Assistant State Appellate Defender Martha Lucey, argued that the youthful offender statute does not allow for prosecution of an offender as young as 13. And if it does, it would violate the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Brent Appel questioned Lucey’s reading of the statute. “You interpret that to mean there is a 14-year-old floor, but the statute doesn’t say that.”

Lucey: “It doesn’t set a ceiling, either. We know it is 18 because you don’t have to waive at age 18. Does it mean birth to 18? Would we allow a small child to be punished as an adult?”

Justice Thomas Waterman wondered how youthful offenders are treated differently than juveniles who are sent directly to be tried in adult court.

Lucey explained that youthful offenders are treated as juvenile offenders until they reach age 18, at which point they return to adult court for sentencing, which could range from discharge or a deferred sentence to prison.

Justice Bruce Zager: “It seems to me that is a logical and reasonable way to handle it. A child gets the benefit of the juvenile system, and then is looked at again at age 18.”

Justice Edward Mansfield echoed Zager’s opinion: “This case is consistent with our juvenile jurisprudence. What is wrong with that?”

Lucey: The question is how much a child of 13 benefits from the delay. In this case, she said, Crooks “did really well” while at the Training School.

Zager said that was not a unanimous opinion, however, noting that Crooks’ father testified that Noah hadn’t come to grips with murdering his mother. “That would give me some pause,” Zager said. “That’s what the District Court indicated at sentencing.”

Arguing the case for the State, Assistant Attorney General Bridget Chambers disagreed with the appellant’s premise: Waiver of a youthful offender into adult court is not punishment, she said, and if it were, it surely is not cruel and unusual.

Appel again questioned the under-age-15 Iowa Code language: Is there no floor? Can a child of any age be prosecuted in adult court?

Chambers: “I struggle to see how it is ambiguous,” she said. The floor is provided by other things, including mens rea (that is, the “guilty mind”), and the prosecutor’s discretion not to prosecute below a certain age.

Waterman asked if the sentencing factors required for juveniles under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama were applied in the Crooks sentencing.

Chambers: The Miller factors were not applied because no minimum sentence was contemplated.

Waterman: “It was still a very individualized hearing, right?”

Chambers: “It was very individualized.”

Appel observed that the sentencing judge thought prison would be beneficial and that Crooks would benefit from services provided in prison. And, there is the potential for early release if he showed maturity. On the other hand, Appel noted that research on juvenile sentencing suggests that it could be cruel and unusual punishment if an offender is sentenced to prison as a juvenile and does not get services.

In her rebuttal argument, Lucey weighed the option of sending youthful offenders to prison or to some alternative where they may receive help transitioning to society: “Are we looking at rehabilitation or retribution?”

Iowa Supreme Court urged to ban criminal prosecution of 13-year-olds in adult court

By: Rox Laird on November 10th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court is being asked to take another step toward protecting juvenile offenders from prison sentences designed for adults in an appeal set for argument Tuesday.

In State v. Noah Crooks, the appellant argues that the State cannot legally or constitutionally prosecute a 13-year-old accused murderer in adult court.

The Iowa Supreme Court has handed down a series of rulings on juvenile sentencing following decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court based on evidence that juvenile offenders’ characters are not fully formed and are thus less culpable than adult offenders.

The Iowa Court’s rulings include a 2014 decision (State v. Lyle) that, in the case of juveniles, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum prison sentences prescribed by the Legislature violate the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Eighth Amendment.

Crooks urges the Court to take that ruling one more step and rule that children under the age of 14 cannot be prosecuted in adult court.

Noah Crooks was found guilty by a Mitchell County jury of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his mother. He was 13 at the time of the crime, and he was waived by a juvenile court judge into adult court to be tried as a “youthful offender.” After he turned 18, following his commitment to the State Training School, Crooks was sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.

In a legal brief submitted to the Court, Crooks’ counsel recites the Iowa Supreme Court’s rulings on juvenile sentencing that have embraced the U.S. Supreme Court’s reasoning and built upon it.

“Crooks requests this Court take the next logical step and define at what age a child may be subject to adult prosecution and punishment,” his appellate attorney argues. “The waiver of and sentencing of a thirteen year old child violates Article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. This Court should adopt a categorical bar on imposing punishment upon a child under the age of fourteen in adult court.”

The State, in a brief filed by Attorney General Tom Miller, responds that waiving a juvenile to adult court is not, by itself, punishment under the Constitution; it is just a “change in forum” where guilt is then established. Then the juvenile receives a deferred judgment until age 18, and during that time the state has the opportunity to rehabilitate the offender for possible release.

“Adult punishment would be imposed only when the child turns eighteen and only if the juvenile system has been unable to rehabilitate the child,” the State argues. “Therefore, the waiver decision does not impose ‘punishment’ for the purpose of Article I, section 17 [of the Iowa Constitution].”

The oral argument in State v. Crooks is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday.

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