Iowa’s Supreme Court justices unanimous in a juvenile-sentencing decision

By: Rox Laird on April 24th, 2018

Iowa’s Supreme Court justices are often divided in juvenile sentencing cases, but they found common ground in a decision handed down April 20: The State can prosecute a juvenile as young as age 13.

Noah Riley Crooks argued in an appeal to the Supreme Court that the State cannot legally or constitutionally prosecute a 13-year-old accused murderer in adult court. In its decision handed down April 20, however, the Court said Iowa’s youthful offender statute “unambiguously” allows prosecution of offenders as young as 13, and such prosecutions do not violate the Iowa Constitution.

All seven justices agreed with that conclusion in the decision by Justice Thomas Waterman joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager. Justice Brent Appel filed a separate concurring opinion, joined by Justices Daryl Hecht and David Wiggins, dissenting on a separate issue of the trial court’s procedure for sentencing Crooks.

Under the youthful-offender process, a juvenile is tried as an adult and, if convicted, remains under the jurisdiction of the juvenile system until reaching the age of 18. At that point the District Court conducts a sentencing hearing. The sentence may range from immediate release to a prison term.

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 with immediate eligibility for parole.

The Supreme Court rejected Crooks’ argument that the Iowa Legislature did not intend a 13-year-old to be prosecuted in adult court under the youthful-offender statute. In fact, Justice Waterman wrote, the Legislature used different age limits throughout the juvenile-justice statutes, it “knows how to set a lower age limit” and it “chose to include thirteen-year-olds within the youthful-offender waiver provision.”

Crooks also argued that prosecuting youthful offenders as young as 13 is unconstitutional in two ways: First, the process of waiving a juvenile into adult court as a youthful offender is by itself cruel and unusual punishment; and, sentencing a juvenile in adult court for a crime committed at age 13 is categorically unconstitutional.

The Court rejected both arguments.

Waterman wrote that Iowa’s waiver provision for youthful offenders does not constitute punishment within the meaning of the Iowa Constitution, let alone “cruel and unusual” punishment. And Iowa’s youthful-offender process exceeds the constitutional requirements imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Iowa Supreme Court with regard to sentencing juveniles.

While concurring in part with the majority opinion, Justice Appel dissented in part to say the District Court at the sentencing stage should have made specific findings considering “the mitigating factors of youth when sentencing children in adult court.”


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.”


Iowa Supreme Court: Changes within trailer park did not affect its zoning status

By: Rox Laird on March 21st, 2018

Does the “detritus of life” change a Des Moines trailer park’s legal nonconforming zoning status it has enjoyed for 63 years?

Not in the eyes of the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Oak Hill Mobile Home Park on Des Moines’ south side has been a legal nonconforming use since 1955, and the Court, in a unanimous March 16 ruling by Justice Bruce Zager, said the City of Des Moines failed to prove that had changed to the point where the City was warranted in shutting it down.

A legal nonconforming use, Zager wrote, is the use of a property that existed before a zoning ordinance is enacted or changed and continues unless the nonconforming use is “legally abandoned, enlarged or extended.”

Oak Hill existed before the city rezoned the area in 1955, and the overall configuration of the park has not changed, nor has the number of trailers increased. But the city argued in 2014 that the use of the property had “intensified” over the years with the addition of porches, decks, outbuildings and other structures that put the park in violation of city zoning regulations.

The Polk County District Court ruled that the City could revoke Oak Hill’s occupancy permit because the mobile home park had “intensified” its use of the property. The park had become “filled with the detritus of life: vehicles, outdoor recreational equipment, garbage bins, makeshift gardens, fencing, and crudely constructed additions to the mobile homes,” the trial judge wrote, which pose a threat to safety and property.

The Supreme Court, however, said the City failed to demonstrate a safety threat. “Remarkably, the record is largely bereft of evidence demonstrating the existence of a significant safety issue,” Zager wrote. “Although the fire marshal testified about the fire hazards specific to all mobile homes in general, he acknowledged that Oak Hill has not been cited for any fire safety code violations.”

The Court also said the City failed to demonstrate that Oak Hill had so changed the character and intensity of the mobile home park that it should lose its legal nonconforming status.

Zager said property owners legally have some latitude to change the original nonconforming use, provided the changes are not substantial and do not have an adverse impact on the neighborhood. But the Court had not before addressed the question of “whether the intensification of a mobile home park due to the addition of structures or the expansion of homes within the park amounts to an illegal expansion of the authorized nonconforming use.”

In this case, the addition of structures to the mobile homes as well as the “detritus of life” the District Court noted, “have not substantially changed the nature and character of [the] use of the property as a mobile home park,” Zager wrote. “Rather, this steady increase in the additions to the mobile home structures and other objects found on the property represents a marginal change that falls within the degree of latitude that the law affords to property owners in their nonconforming use.”


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.”


Iowa Supreme Court asked: Is it possible to say the road not taken would have led to better place?

By: Rox Laird on November 8th, 2017

A southeast Iowa woman is asking the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn its 2010 decision that she says imposes an impossible burden on workers’ compensation claimants:  proving that the outcome of the medical procedure they chose is better than a hypothetical alternative.

Her employer says the court’s precedent is a correct reading of state law and strikes the right balance between the interests of employees and employers.

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments on the question Tuesday in Kelly Brewer-Strong v. HNI Corp.

Brewer-Strong appealed a Muscatine County District Court ruling upholding a decision of a deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioner that she was not eligible for benefits during the nine-week period while she was recovering from surgery for a work-related injury.

She argues she is eligible for “healing-period benefits” under state law because the company admitted the injury was work-related.

Her employer, HNI Corp., disagrees, pointing to an Iowa Code provision that says employers are not liable for medical benefits when an employee uses a medical provider not authorized by the employer to treat a work-related injury. Brewer-Strong thus forfeited the healing-period benefit by choosing to have surgery performed by a doctor of her choice rather than following the medical advice of the doctor chosen by HNI.

The Iowa Supreme Court, however, addressed that provision in Bell Bros. Heating & Air Conditioning v. Gwinn (2010), and said employees in some cases may be eligible for healing-period benefits following treatment from an unauthorized medical provider where the procedure was “reasonable and beneficial.” The Court added that such unauthorized care is beneficial if it results in “more favorable outcomes than would likely have been achieved by the care authorized by the employer.”

That puts an impossible burden on claimants such as Brewer-Strong, her legal counsel argues in a brief submitted to the Court, because she must speculate about the outcome of a chosen medical procedure over a hypothetical one she did not choose.

HNI dismissed that argument in its brief, pointing to at least 10 recent Iowa cases where injured employees met the burden of proof under the Gwinn test.

Two amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs submitted to the Court joined the argument from opposite perspectives:

The Iowa Association for Justice Workers’ Compensation Core Group agreed with Brewer-Strong’s call for the Court to abandon the Gwinn burden of proof. “It is simply an impossible burden to require an injured worker to show that the outcome of a course of care that actually took place produced a more favorable outcome than a course of care that never occurred,” the brief argues.

In response, an amicus brief filed by the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), the Iowa Insurance Institute, the Iowa Defense Counsel Association and the Iowa Self-Insurers Association, urges the court to stand by its Gwinn decision. [Disclosure: The ABI brief was written by former Nyemaster Goode attorney Ryan Koopmans while he was with the firm.]

The “reasonable and beneficial” test “isn’t just some procedural rule that this Court created to fill in the gaps of a vague statute,” the brief argues, “it is dictated by the terms of Iowa Code section 85.27(4), which states that the employer ‘has the right to choose the care’ of an employee who is injured on the job.”

So it seems clear that, in addition to the parties, the outcome of this case will be closely watched by advocates for employers and employees alike.

Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read the parties brief. The oral argument is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 14.


Iowa Supreme Court restores sentence reduction in a ruling affecting 150 inmates

By: Rox Laird on October 19th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court in its first decision of the term handed down Oct. 13 agreed with a convicted sex offender that his prison sentence was wrongly extended by more than three years by the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC).

The IDOC’s recent policy reversal on how to calculate inmates’ early release credits was contrary to an earlier Iowa Supreme Court ruling, the justices said unanimously in State v. Iowa District Court for Jones County.

At the heart of the appeal is a state statute that grants prison inmates early release based on good behavior. An inmate is eligible to earn credits equal to 1.2 days of sentence reduction for every day of good behavior. These so-called “earned-time credits” encourage prisoners to follow prison rules and participate in treatment programs.

Marshall Miller was serving a prison sentence for third-degree sex abuse that required completion of a sex-offender treatment program. By the time Miller entered the treatment program, he had earned enough credits to be released in March 2016. Before completing treatment, however, he was removed from the program due to prison rules infractions.

Under the Department’s previous interpretation of state law, that meant Miller would be ineligible for any additional credits toward early release while keeping those he had already earned. But the Department changed its interpretation in 2016 to say that sex offenders who refuse or are removed from sex-offender treatment forfeit not just future earned-time credits but credits already earned as well.

The difference meant Miller’s projected release date was extended by three years and nine months, to December 2019. Since the Department applied the change retroactively, it similarly affected approximately 150 Iowa prison inmates.

Miller argued in his appeal that the Department had it right in its original interpretation of the statute, and the Supreme Court agreed. In fact, that is the position the court took when it addressed this issue in its 2009 ruling in Holm v. State.

In that ruling, the court adopted the State’s position at the time that Iowa Code section 903A.2 should be read to say that an inmate will no longer accrue any earned time after refusing to attend the sex offender treatment program but will not lose any previously accrued earned time. The court has adhered to that position in subsequent decisions on the issue, and the legislature has acquiesced to these precedents by declining to change the language of the statute.

Justice Thomas Waterman, writing for the court in the Jones County decision, said “the legislature has amended the statute five times without altering our interpretation in Holm. We thus conclude that the legislature acquiesced in Holm’s interpretation” of the statute. “The IDOC cannot overrule Holm by administrative fiat; rather, a legislative amendment to section 903A.2 is required before the IDOC may begin forfeiting previously accrued earned time based on a sex offender’s refusal or removal from SOTP.”


A question in traffic-camera appeals: Do you have a constitutional right to break the speed limit in Iowa?

By: Rox Laird on September 25th, 2017

A legal dispute over a $75 traffic citation could have implications for thousands of drivers who receive speeding tickets in the mail based on evidence captured by an automated traffic-enforcement camera.

A number of lawsuits have been working their way through state and federal courts in Iowa over the legality of using automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in two such cases:  City of Cedar Rapids v Leaf and Myron Behm, et al. v City of Cedar Rapids and Gatso USA Inc.

Marla Leaf asks the court to reverse a Linn County District Court ruling rejecting her appeal of a speeding ticket; and, in a companion case raising similar issues, Myron Behm and five other plaintiffs appeal a Linn County District Court’s dismissal on summary judgment of their civil suit against the City of Cedar Rapids. Both trial court decisions were upheld by the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the Iowa Supreme Court is now hearing appeals on further review.

In both appeals the Iowa Supreme Court is urged to declare Cedar Rapids’ process for enforcing traffic laws using automated cameras illegal under Iowa law and unconstitutional violations of due process and equal protection.

Leaf argues among other things that the city unlawfully delegated municipal police power to Gatso USA Inc., the company that installed and operates the cameras, which, she points out, is a for-profit corporation that has a contingency-fee interest in all fines collected.

“It is Gatso’s equipment that calculates speed, not the City or its police officers,” Leaf argues in a brief submitted to the court. “It is Gatso’s employees, and not the City’s Police Department, who calibrate the radar equipment. Gatso’s equipment, alone, determines who is eligible for prosecution, and who is not. It filters ‘events’ before sending any of them to the City for review by a police officer. After a brief review, if ‘approved’ by a Police Officer, Gatso creates Notice of Violation documents, under the City’s logo, and then mails them out to vehicle owners.”

The city rejects the argument that it illegally delegated its police powers, pointing out that all speeding citations are reviewed by a Cedar Rapids police officer before they are issued. And the city cites a 2002 Iowa Supreme Court ruling holding that while an Iowa municipality may not surrender legislative or government powers, it may delegate “acts and duties necessary to transact and carry out its powers.”

On the constitutional question, Leaf argues that the city’s traffic-camera enforcement violates the equal-protection clause. She says the city excludes from traffic-camera enforcement thousands of vehicles, including semi-trucks pulling trailers that do not have rear license plates, and government vehicles with license plates that do not show up in the state’s database.

That issue drew some of the most spirited questioning from the justices at Wednesday’s oral argument.

Justice David Wiggins repeatedly brought the questioning back to the equal-protection issue:  If the only drivers getting speeding tickets are “ordinary citizens,” rather than government vehicles and semi-trucks pulling trailers, he asked, how does that square with the equal-protection provision of the Iowa Constitution?

Patricia Kropf, representing the City of Cedar Rapids, said the ordinance did not set out to exclude certain drivers.

Wiggins questioned why that matters. “Similarly situated people have to be treated equally,” he said.  “How does this pass constitutional muster?”

Lawyers for the city argued that the ordinance doesn’t exclude certain vehicles; they are excluded only as it is applied because those vehicles aren’t in the license data base.

Wiggins was not persuaded: “As applied” is a problem, too, he noted.

Chief Justice Mark Cady asked what the city’s interest is in excluding government vehicles and semi-trucks pulling trailers.

Kropf responded by noting enforcement of speed limits in a cost-effective manner. The city also argued that photos of the front of vehicles raise privacy concerns by capturing the faces of the driver and other passengers in the vehicle, and by recording the date and time of day of the photo.

Justice Thomas Waterman got in a final zinger in a question to Iowa City lawyer James Larew, who argued the plaintiffs’ cases in both appeals: “Are you asking for a fundamental right to speed 12 miles over the speed limit?”

No, Larew responded, but the appellants are opposed to irrational enforcement of traffic laws.

[Go to Cases in the Pipeline at On Brief to read the briefs in the Cedar Rapids traffic cameras appeals.]


Iowa Supreme Court: Plaintiffs may sue State for damages under the Iowa Constitution

By: Rox Laird on July 7th, 2017

Iowa’s former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner has a right to sue the State for monetary damages under the Iowa Constitution, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The decision is the latest chapter in Christopher Godfrey’s five-year legal battle against former Gov. Terry Branstad and five other State officials over Branstad’s efforts to oust Godfrey from his job. Both men have moved to new positions – Godfrey to Washington, D.C., in a similar position in the U.S. Department of Labor, and Branstad to China as U.S. ambassador – but the suit is still being fought out in Polk County District Court and in a parallel suit in federal court.

When he returned to office in 2011, Branstad sought Godfrey’s removal based on complaints from business leaders that Godfrey had not been even-handed in handling cases involving workers’ compensation claims for job-related illnesses and injuries.

Godfrey refused to resign voluntarily, so Branstad cut the commissioner’s pay from $112,069 to $73,250, the minimum allowed by law.

Godfrey was appointed by former Gov. Tom Vilsack and re-appointed by former Gov. Chet Culver – both Democrats. He argues that Republican Governor Branstad’s campaign to force Godfrey to resign was political retribution. Godfrey, who is gay, also contends his treatment was based on his sexual orientation.

Godfrey brought his claims in Polk County District Court under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, naming the State, the governor and five other State officials individually – although the individual defendants have since been dismissed. But he also cited due process and equal protection protections of the Iowa Constitution, claiming his reputation was damaged and his property interest in his salary was violated because of partisan politics and/or his sexual orientation.

The District Court dismissed those claims, saying there is no right under the Iowa Constitution to bring a direct action against the State for monetary damages unless the Iowa General Assembly has specifically created one.

The Supreme Court disagreed in a 4-3 ruling that for the first time recognized a right to sue the State for civil damages for a violation of civil liberties under the Iowa Constitution. The seven justices were split three ways on how the decision applies specifically to Godfrey, however. The court noted that in this decision it expressed “no view whatsoever on the underlying merits of the case” in reversing the trial court and sending it back for further proceedings on two of four claims raised in Godfrey’s appeal.

The lead opinion recognizing a constitutional right of action was written by Justice Brent Appel joined by Justices Daryl Hecht and David Wiggins. In a separate concurrence, Chief Justice Mark Cady joined that opinion on Godfrey’s property interest and reputation claims but said the Civil Rights Act preempts the sexual orientation claim, thus providing the fourth vote on that issue. The Chief Justice also said punitive damages are not available to plaintiffs in such suits against the State.

Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager dissented, arguing the majority set a dangerous precedent.

In his opinion for the majority, Justice Appel noted that the framers of the Iowa Constitution in 1857 signaled the importance of protecting individual liberties from encroachment by the State government by putting the Bill of Rights at the very beginning of the document.

“If these individual rights in the very first article of the Iowa Constitution are to be meaningful, they must be effectively enforced,” Appel wrote, and the judiciary has a duty to protect them. “It would be ironic indeed if the enforcement of individual rights and liberties in the Iowa Constitution, designed to ensure that basic rights and liberties were immune from majoritarian impulses, were dependent on legislative action for enforcement.

Appel wrote that the court has often enforced the civil rights protections under the Iowa Constitution over the years. In 2009, for example, the court in Varnum v. Brien held that a law prohibiting same-sex marriage violated equal protection. And Appel cited several other cases dating back to 1904 where the court enforced rights and privileges under the Iowa Constitution.

Appel also rejected the argument that the Iowa Civil Rights Act preempts a claim under the Iowa Constitution based on the “long-settled principle” that a constitution trumps legislative enactments. A constitution may only be amended by the people, not by the legislature.

“If we held that a statute might preempt an otherwise valid constitutional action, this would in effect grant ordinary legislation the power to cabin constitutional rights,” he wrote. “The Iowa Constitution would no longer be the supreme law of the State.”

Justice Mansfield argued in dissent that Friday’s ruling was a radical departure from the court’s tradition of requiring that damage claims require either legislative authority or a basis in common law of torts or contracts.

“In 1965, our general assembly passed the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA),” Mansfield wrote. “Today, we learn that the general assembly need not have bothered. Apparently, people who believed they had a civil rights claim against Iowa State or local officials always had a money-damages cause of action, with both actual and punitive damages available. It just took from 1857 until 2017 for someone to figure it out.”

Mansfield said majority’s holding will have limited impact on Godfrey’s case but otherwise will have far-reaching implications.

“While the impact of today’s decision in [Godfrey’s] case may be limited,” he wrote, “there should be no doubt about its far-reaching effects elsewhere.” For example, he wrote, “I anticipate many claims from current and former inmates seeking damages for wrongful incarceration.”

Although a majority of the court drew the line at punitive damages assessed against the State in such cases, Mansfield said the door could eventually be opened to punitive damages based on the logic of the lead opinion.

“The lead opinion amounts to a judicial declaration of defiance,” he wrote. “The lead opinion signals that it will not be constrained by anything the legislature does and can devise any and all damage remedies it deems suitable and proper for alleged constitutional violations. This principle seems to lack any boundary.”

[Disclosure: Former Nyemaster Goode attorney and On Brief contributor Ryan Koopmans filed an amicus brief in this appeal on behalf of the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool and the Iowa Association of School Boards.]


Iowa Supreme Court finds a warrantless breath test while operating a boat was involuntary and violated the Iowa Constitution.

By: Rox Laird on July 3rd, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that a warrantless breath test used to prosecute Dale Pettijohn for operating a boat while intoxicated violated Article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution, the state equivalent of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment that prohibits unreasonable searches and sets requirements for warrants.

Iowa courts recognize two exceptions to the warrant requirement: One exception is if the search is tied to an arrest – or in the legal argot, a “search incident to arrest.” Another is if a suspect consents to a search. Neither exception applied in Pettijohn’s case, the court said in a 4-3 decision written by Justice David Wiggins joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht.

Justice Thomas Waterman filed a sharp dissent, joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager, in which he criticized the majority for “concocting new theories” to “make bad law.”

“The majority goes well beyond what Pettijohn argued in district court or on appeal and thereby blindsides the State and unfairly reverses the district court on theories never presented in that forum,” Waterman wrote. “We are supposed to be impartial adjudicators rather than partisan advocates.”

Dale Pettijohn was stopped by an Iowa Department of Natural Resources water patrol officer while piloting a pontoon boat on Saylorville Reservoir. Pettijohn was arrested and taken to the Polk City Police Department where he underwent a breath test after signing an “implied consent” form. He was subsequently convicted in Polk County District Court.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Pettijohn argued that the breath test violated his constitutional rights. The court agreed, basing its decision on the Iowa Constitution.

First, while a warrantless search conducted in the course of an arrest may be legally justified to prevent the destruction of evidence, the court said that does not necessarily apply to evidence lost because of the dissipation of alcohol from the body.

The state drunk-boating law allows a two-hour window of opportunity for a valid breath test, during which time an officer can obtain a warrant based on probable cause, which can be done electronically now with expanded online access to judges.

There may be exceptions when “unusual circumstances” make it impractical to obtain a warrant within two hours of witnessing the arrestee operating a boat, but the court rejected an across-the-board exception to the warrant requirement in such cases.

Second, a warrantless search may be allowed if the suspect consents. Under Iowa’s implied-consent law, in exchange for the privilege of being able to boat on navigable waterways, a person suspected of operating a boat while drunk “is deemed to have given consent” to a blood, breath or urine test. The individual is given a choice: Sign the form giving consent or face civil penalties, criminal penalties and/or the loss of boating privileges.

Consent to a warrantless search cannot be coerced but must be freely given after being informed of the consequences of refusing. After weighing the facts of Pettijohn’s case, the court concluded his consent was not knowingly given: Pettijohn was intoxicated when he signed the consent waiver; he was arrested and transported to the police station, which involves a greater degree of inherent coercion; and the implied-consent advisory did not advise Pettijohn of his constitutional right to refuse a warrantless search.

Also, the waiver advisory form was misleading because it warned only of the civil consequences of submitting to the breath test – a penalty of $500 to $2,000 and suspension of boating privileges for one to six years. But the form did not warn of potential criminal penalty – mandatory imprisonment for 48 hours to one year and a mandatory fine of $1,000 to $7,500.

“The mere fact that Pettijohn submitted to the breath test after being read the implied-consent advisory is inadequate to establish his effective consent,” Wiggins wrote. “Because Pettijohn made the decision to submit to the breath test in the inherently coercive context of custodial detention with incomplete and inaccurate information, while intoxicated and facing the prospect of significant penalties if he refused to submit, we conclude his consent to the warrantless search was not voluntary and uncoerced.”

Iowans headed to the lake this summer might beware reading too much into Friday’s Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that reversed a drunken boater’s conviction: You may be able to refuse to take a breath test if you drink to excess while boating, but don’t expect the same privilege to apply when driving home from the lake.

The court emphasized that its ruling is limited to boating on Iowa waterways, not driving on the state’s roads. “A person reading this decision should not jump to the conclusion that our analysis will make the statutory scheme governing the operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence unconstitutional,” Wiggins wrote. “Any decision relating to operating a motor vehicle while under the influence will have to wait for another case raising its constitutionality,” he added.


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