Divided Iowa Supreme Court keeps county attorney on the job, despite sexual harassment complaints

By: Rox Laird on July 12th, 2018

Van Buren County Attorney Abraham Watkins was removed from office by a District Court judge who ruled that Watkins “engaged in misconduct or maladministration by regularly committing sexual harassment” of female employees.

The court record reciting Watkins’ sexually explicit behavior included asking a female employee about her vagina, complaining that her breasts were distracting, showing her nude photos of his wife, discussing his marital sex life and on more than one occasion appearing in the office in boxer briefs.

Reviewing the case on appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed that sexual harassment is unacceptable, but it concluded in a 4-3 decision that Watkins’ behavior did not warrant a court order removing a public official elected by the people.

The justices on June 29 issued three separate opinions covering nearly 70 pages that reveal how the Court was torn between respecting the role of the electorate, not judges, to say who is fit for office while not seeming to minimize sexual harassment in the workplace.

Three justices – Bruce Zager, writing for himself, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman – concluded that despite Watkins’ “morally reprehensible” behavior it was not enough to remove him from office.

Three justices – Chief Justice Mark Cady, writing in a dissent joined by Daryl Hecht, and David Wiggins writing in a separate dissent – concluded that Watkins willfully created a sexually hostile work environment for female employees on his staff and that he deserved to be removed from office.

Justice Brent Appel supplied the deciding vote in a separate opinion in which he disagreed with Zager’s reasoning while concurring that, however repulsive, Watkins’ actions fell short of clearing the high hurdle for a judicial decision removing a public official from office.

The Legislature gave the courts authority to remove a public official from office for, among other things, “willful misconduct,” and the pivotal question before the Court in this case was whether Watkins’ misconduct was “willful.”

The Iowa Supreme Court in a 1913 case defined “willfully” for purposes of removal to mean a public official who acts “intentionally, deliberately, with a bad or evil purpose, contrary to known duty.”

Zager wrote that it is not a question of whether a “reasonable person would find that the public official acted contrary to his or her duties or even unlawfully” but a question of the public official’s “subjective intent to act with a bad or evil purpose” in committing wrongdoing.

“As morally reprehensible as we find Watkins’s behavior,” Zager wrote, “this is not the standard by which we need to analyze whether the State has met its high burden to establish whether Watkins committed willful misconduct or maladministration in office by creating a sexually hostile work environment. We are a court of law, not a court of public opinion.”

Chief Justice Cady disagreed, faulting the plurality opinion for looking at the case from Watkins’ perspective, not the employee’s: “Today’s decision is intimately tied to a bygone era of law that shielded men who knew better, at the expense of their female employees, who were required to abandon their jobs or forced to accept harassment as a condition of employment.”

Justice Appel wrote in his concurring opinion that while he agreed with much of Cady’s opinion, he concluded that Watkins’ behavior did not meet the “extraordinarily demanding standard” for removing an elected official from office.

“We have required what amounts to ‘specific intent’ to do wrong in a criminal or quasi-criminal way and the need for heroic action by the court to save the day,” Appel wrote. “In the end, I conclude that Watkins’s behavior approaches, but does not cross, the heroic and stringent penal or quasi-criminal standard for removal articulated in our historic caselaw.”


Iowa Supreme Court splits, again, on a juvenile sentencing case

By: Rox Laird on June 22nd, 2018

Iowa’s mandatory sex-offender registry for juveniles who commit a sex offense by force is the equivalent of criminal punishment, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 15, but it’s not unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Thus, the Court continued its incremental approach to deciding juvenile sentencing cases that it has followed for the past several terms. These decisions come in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings declaring that certain sentences are cruel and unusual punishment for offenders under age 18 based on the idea that juveniles are fundamentally different than adults.

The Iowa Supreme Court has taken a similar approach on juvenile sentencing, though the justices are typically split 4-3 with Chief Justice Mark Cady providing the deciding vote depending on the question. The Court followed that pattern in its ruling in In the Interest of T.H., Minor Child.

There were actually two majorities in this decision, both written by Cady, with the other six justices divided into separate camps on the punitive and constitutional questions of the sex-offender registry.

Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht joined the part of Cady’s opinion holding that mandatory registration for juveniles is punishment – thus making up a majority on that issue – but they dissented on the holding that it is not unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The tables were turned by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager: They dissented from the majority holding that the registry amounts to punishment, but they joined the chief justice to create a majority to say the registration requirement is not unconstitutional.

T.H. was adjudicated as delinquent at the age of 14 for forcing a 16-year-old girl into oral sex against her will. He was placed in a residential sex-offender treatment program and required to register as a sex offender.

Juvenile sex offenders on the registry are generally barred from being near schools (except their own), libraries, child-care facilities, dependent-adult facilities, pools and playgrounds. Similar restrictions apply to working or volunteering around children. They must appear in person every three months to verify compliance with the requirements.

In deciding whether these requirements are cruel and unusual punishment, the Court first addressed the question of whether they amount to punishment. The Court weighed seven factors set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in determining whether a statute is punitive, and concluded that, on balance, Iowa’s registration requirement is punitive.

“The statute imposes an affirmative restraint akin to supervised probation,” Cady wrote. “It mandates the mass dissemination of offender records that are historically kept confidential to promote the juvenile’s potential for rehabilitation. And the sheer number of restrictions imposed on juveniles, given the demonstrated low juvenile recidivism rate, is excessive in light of the civil purpose of preventing multiple offenses.”

T.H. argued that the registration requirement for juveniles is the equivalent of an adult punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, but the Court disagreed, in part because the juvenile court has the authority to revoke the registration requirement when its dispositional order is terminated.

“We find it is not excessively severe for the Legislature to put additional constraints in place during the period when a juvenile adjudicated delinquent of an aggravated sexual offense is receiving reformative services, but has not yet been deemed rehabilitated,” Cady wrote.

Iowa’s mandatory sex-offender registry for juveniles who commit a sex offense by force is the equivalent of criminal punishment, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 15, but it’s not unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Thus, the Court continued its incremental approach to deciding juvenile sentencing cases that it has followed for the past several terms. These decisions come in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings declaring that certain sentences are cruel and unusual punishment for offenders under age 18 based on the idea that juveniles are fundamentally different than adults.

The Iowa Supreme Court has taken a similar approach on juvenile sentencing, though the justices are typically split 4-3 with Chief Justice Mark Cady providing the deciding vote depending on the question. The Court followed that pattern in its ruling in In the Interest of T.H., Minor Child.

There were actually two majorities in this decision, both written by Cady, with the other six justices divided into separate camps on the punitive and constitutional questions of the sex-offender registry.

Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht joined the part of Cady’s opinion holding that mandatory registration for juveniles is punishment – thus making up a majority on that issue – but they dissented on the holding that it is not unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The tables were turned by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager: They dissented from the majority holding that the registry amounts to punishment, but they joined the chief justice to create a majority to say the registration requirement is not unconstitutional.

T.H. was adjudicated as delinquent at the age of 14 for forcing a 16-year-old girl into oral sex against her will. He was placed in a residential sex-offender treatment program and required to register as a sex offender.

Juvenile sex offenders on the registry are generally barred from being near schools (except their own), libraries, child-care facilities, dependent-adult facilities, pools and playgrounds. Similar restrictions apply to working or volunteering around children. They must appear in person every three months to verify compliance with the requirements.

In deciding whether these requirements are cruel and unusual punishment, the Court first addressed the question of whether they amount to punishment. The Court weighed seven factors set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in determining whether a statute is punitive, and concluded that, on balance, Iowa’s registration requirement is punitive.

“The statute imposes an affirmative restraint akin to supervised probation,” Cady wrote. “It mandates the mass dissemination of offender records that are historically kept confidential to promote the juvenile’s potential for rehabilitation. And the sheer number of restrictions imposed on juveniles, given the demonstrated low juvenile recidivism rate, is excessive in light of the civil purpose of preventing multiple offenses.”

T.H. argued that the registration requirement for juveniles is the equivalent of an adult punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, but the Court disagreed, in part because the juvenile court has the authority to revoke the registration requirement when its dispositional order is terminated.

“We find it is not excessively severe for the Legislature to put additional constraints in place during the period when a juvenile adjudicated delinquent of an aggravated sexual offense is receiving reformative services, but has not yet been deemed rehabilitated,” Cady wrote.


Iowa Supreme Court reaffirms ‘public duty doctrine’ in rejecting claims against Humboldt County

By: Rox Laird on June 13th, 2018

An Iowa woman who was severely injured in a vehicle accident in Humboldt County cannot sue the county for negligence based on an exception to such liability suits long recognized in Iowa, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 8.

Kaitlyn Johnson suffered brain damage and paralysis in the accident when a pickup truck driven by her husband left the county road, when into the ditch and struck a concrete barrier.  The concrete barrier was constructed by a private landowner, and was on the private landowner’s land.   Humboldt County had a right-of-way easement where part of the barrier was located.  Johnson argued the county was negligent in not removing the barrier.

But the Court in Johnson v. Humboldt County said the claim is barred by the “public duty doctrine,” which says where there is a duty owed to the public in general there is no liability to an individual member of the public. The decision written by Edward Mansfield was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager. Justice David Wiggins filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht.

This decision is a replay of the Court’s most recent discussion of the public-duty doctrine in the 2016 ruling in Estate of McFarlin v. State that said the State of Iowa was not liable for a boating death that occurred on the state-owned Storm Lake when a boat struck a submerged dredging pipe. The Court held that lawsuit was barred because the State owed a duty not to the fatally injured boater but to boaters at large who are able to use the lake.

The four justices in the majority in that decision reaffirmed it in the Humboldt County case. The three Humboldt County dissenters dissented in McFarlin as well.

The public-duty doctrine, as explained in a legal treatise cited by the Court, has been adopted by courts to limits government liability.

“The limitless potential liability that might be visited on government entities if affirmative duties were imposed on them for every undertaking has influenced courts in limiting the existence and scope of affirmative duties to which government entities are subject,” according to the Restatement (Third) of Torts. “Some courts insist on a ‘special relationship’ between the plaintiff and a public entity that distinguishes the plaintiff from the public at large before imposing an affirmative duty.”

The Iowa Supreme Court has long recognized the public-duty doctrine, saying it is “alive and well” in Iowa, according to a 2007 decision.

In the dissenting opinion, however, Justice Wiggins said the public-duty doctrine should not apply in this case, in part because the county had an affirmative duty to remove the concrete barrier under a State statute that mandates that government authorities remove all obstructions in highway right-of-ways within their jurisdiction.


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.”


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