U.S. Supreme Court denies reduced criminal sentences in appeal from Iowa

By: Rox Laird on June 5th, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal from five Iowa criminal defendants who argued for shortened prison terms based on a recent change in federal sentencing guidelines.

The five defendants pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges that carried mandatory-minimum sentences of 20 years each. But because they provided “substantial assistance” to the criminal investigation, the government recommended sentence reductions, and U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett of Sioux City imposed prison terms ranging from 84 months to 264 months for the five.

Three years later the defendants sought reductions of their prison sentences following changes in sentencing guidelines approved by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which were made retroactive.

Bennett denied the reductions, however, because the sentences he imposed below the 20-year mandatory minimum were based on a calculation factoring in the value of each defendant’s assistance to the government’s criminal investigation, not on the original U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld Bennett’s decision on appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling handed down Monday agreed with both.

“In each of petitioners’ cases, the top end of the [Sentencing Commission guidelines range] fell below the applicable mandatory minimum sentence, and so the court concluded that the mandatory minimum superseded the guidelines range,” Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote for the Supreme Court. “Thus, in all five cases, the court discarded the advisory ranges in favor of the mandatory minimum” to calculate the sentences.

U.S. Supreme Court denies DeCosters’ prison sentence appeals

By: Rox Laird on May 22nd, 2017

Two executives of an Iowa-based egg production company apparently will serve time in federal prison for their part in the 2010 salmonella outbreak that resulted in nearly 2,000 reported illnesses and the recall of a half-million eggs.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied appeals of their federal prison sentences by Austin (“Jack”) DeCoster, the owner of Quality Egg, and his son Peter, the company’s chief operating officer.

Both DeCosters were sentenced to three months in federal prison and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine after they pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Sioux City to misdemeanor violations as “responsible corporate officers” under the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act.

The DeCosters appealed their sentences to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, arguing it would violate due process and be cruel and unusual to send them to prison.

While they acknowledged the company’s criminal violations for wrongdoing by employees, including falsifying inspection records, mislabeling expiration dates, and bribing a USDA inspector, the DeCosters argued that prison sentences were unconstitutional without evidence that they personally participated in the criminal violations or intended to violate the law.

A three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based Court of Appeals rejected those arguments. The panel (with one dissent) held that as responsible corporate officers the DeCosters were liable, not for the acts or omissions of other company employees, but rather for their own failure to act to prevent or remedy violations of the federal food-safety law.

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Eighth Circuit without comment.

Amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs were filed with the Supreme Court in support of the DeCosters by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Washington Legal Foundation.

(See our earlier posts for more background on the DeCosters appeal.)

U.S. Supreme Court denies appeal in Iowa City murder case

By: Rox Laird on January 23rd, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday denied an appeal of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling that ordered a new trial for Justin Alexander Marshall who was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2009 shooting of an Iowa City landlord.

The Iowa Supreme Court in June ruled that the trial court erred in allowing testimony of a jailhouse informant. The Court concluded that the informant, acting as an agent of the State, “plainly deliberately elicited information from Marshall.” Thus, that testimony cannot be used against Marshall without violating his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment.

The decision, which was handed down June 30, on the Court’s final day of the 2015-16 term, covered nearly 100 pages. That included the majority opinion by Justice Brent Appel (joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht) and a dissent by Justice Edward Mansfield (joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager).

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court. The Court, without comment, denied the appeal Monday.

That presumably means Alexander will be retried, as Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness earlier told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that was her intent.

SCOTUS ruling on blood-alcohol tests leads Iowa Supreme Court to delay boating-while-intoxicated case until next term

By: Administrator on June 24th, 2016

By Ryan Koopmans

As Rox wrote yesterday, the Iowa Supreme Court is (or at least was) expected to release a decision next week in State v. Pettijohn, a case about (among other things) whether Iowa’s implied-consent law–the law that punishes drivers who refuse to take a blood-alcohol test–is constitutional.  The case was argued in September, which makes it the Court’s longest outstanding case.  And because the Iowa Supreme Court has been sharply divided over search-and-seizure issues, it is also one of the most anticipated rulings of the term.  

Or at least it was.  Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Birchfield v. North Dakota that these so-called implied-consent statutes don’t violate the Fourth Amendment when it comes to breathalyzer tests, but that they do violate the Fourth Amendment when it comes to blood tests, unless the police get a warrant.  So you can be punished for refusing to take a breath test; but you can’t be punished for refusing a blood test.

In light of that ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court has put its decision in Pettijohn on hold.  Yesterday afternoon, Chief Justice Mark Cady issued an order stating that the parties (Dale Pettijohn and the State of Iowa) must submit additional briefs to the Court that “address the impact of the Birchfield decision on the issues in this case.”  And they have until August 1 to do so. 

Pettijohn took a breath test; not a blood test.  So if anything, Birchfield is likely to cut against him.  But the Iowa Supreme Court could decide the case differently under the Iowa Constitution; and they’ve done that very thing several times the past five years.  But Birchfield could have just switched the vote from “reverse” (Pettijohn wins) to “affirm” (Pettijohn loses). So it might be a case of bad timing for Pettijohn, who thought he was going to get a decision next week.

Pettijohn’s case is different than Birchfield, though, in that he was boating while drinking rather than driving while drinking.  And he says that matters, because (in his view) driving is a privilege and using public waterways is a right.  We’ll see if that makes a difference.

In any event, we won’t likely know until sometime next fall when the justices return for the 2016-2017 term.

Get back in here! U.S. Supreme Court rejects Eighth Circuit’s “no recalling a jury” rule.

By: Administrator on June 9th, 2016

By Ryan Leemkuil

This blog has previously covered the long-running dispute between former Iowa law school dean Carolyn Jones and Teresa Wagner, a former law school employee who claims she was passed over for a job due to political bias. Most recently, we covered the Eighth Circuit’s 2014 ruling that the district court did not have the power to recall the jurors to render a verdict minutes after they had been discharged. Noting the risk of outside influence, the Eighth Circuit thought a bright line rule was best: Once a court discharges the jury and they leave the courtroom, a jury can no longer render a verdict. In today’s world of “instant individualized electronic communication,” the Eighth Circuit explained, a clear rule “offers better guidance than an amorphous rule that turns on whether jurors in fact became available for or were susceptible to outside influences or remained within total control of the court.” Jones, who was on the losing end of that ruling, asked the Supreme Court to review the case, but the Court declined early last year.

Today, however, the Supreme Court addressed the issue in another case and rejected the Eighth Circuit’s bright line rule. In Dietz v. Bouldin, the Court adopted a multi-factor test to determine whether a discharged jury may be recalled to do further work on a case. Those factors include the delay between discharge and recall, whether the jurors interacted with any non-jurors, and the nature of any courtroom reaction to the initial verdict. Rather than impose any “categorical bar” to recalling a jury, the Supreme Court directed district courts to “cautiously” and “carefully” apply these factors to decide whether a jury may be recalled.

Two dissenting justices—Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Kennedy—preferred the Eighth Circuit’s bright line rule. Echoing the Eighth Circuit’s concerns in Wagner, the dissent reasoned that a clear rule was preferable in “today’s world of cellphones, wireless Internet, and 24/7 news coverage,” where jurors may easily come across prejudicial information after discharge. The majority’s various factors, on the other hand, will only produce more litigation: “Is one hour too long? How about two hours or two days? Does a single Internet search by a juror preclude recalling the entire jury?” An occasional unnecessary “redo,” in the dissent’s view, is preferable to repeated litigation trying to answer these questions.

Dietz won’t matter for the Wagner case—the case was ultimately retried and Wagner lost. But litigators should be on notice: A jury’s discharge might just be temporary.

*Ryan Leemkuil is legal counsel at Fareway  Stores and before that was an attorney at Nyemaster Goode. 

Iowa trucking company gets unanimous U.S. Supreme Court victory

By: Rox Laird on May 20th, 2016

A sexual harassment lawsuit against Cedar Rapids trucking company CRST that has bounced around the federal courts for more than a decade took yet another bounce at the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday.

The history of this case is so contorted that the Supreme Court devoted 11 pages of the 16-page opinion to a recitation of the background. The court’s legal discussion was much more succinct, however: The result was in favor of the trucking company, which now stands to gain more than $4 million in lawyer’s fees after emerging victorious in its protracted legal battle with the federal government.

The case began in 2005 when driver trainee Monika Starke filed an employment discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging she was sexually harassed by two CRST drivers during training.

The EEOC filed suit against CRST not only on Starke’s behalf, but on behalf of more than 270 women claiming to have suffered similar harassment.

That suit was ultimately pared back down to just Starke’s complaint by U.S. District Judge Linda Reade, in the Northern District of Iowa, who ruled that the federal employment commission had taken unwarranted shortcuts to bootstrap one case into a larger class action.

Although CRST resolved Starke’s complaint in a $50,000 settlement, the Cedar Rapids trucking company sought to recover legal fees it had accumulated during the years it had successfully fought to eliminate the other EEOC complaints. Judge Reade agreed and awarded the company more than $4.5 million in legal fees and expenses.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Iowa and six other Midwest states, reversed Reade’s ruling. The appeals court determined that federal law provides for fee recovery only by the party that wins a federal civil rights case on the legal merits. The appeals court held that the trucking company had prevailed not on the merits but on procedural issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision handed down Thursday, disagreed.

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “common sense” dictates legal fees be awarded to the prevailing party whether it wins on merits or other grounds. A win is a win.

“There is no indication that Congress intended that defendants should be eligible to recover attorney’s fees only when courts dispose of claims on the merits,” Kennedy wrote. “The congressional policy regarding the exercise of district court discretion in the ultimate decision whether to award fees does not distinguish between merits-based and nonmerits-based judgments.”

Alas, that does not mean the end of this case.

Although Kennedy noted that it has been 10 years since Starke originally filed her complaint, and the case has already produced “protracted and expensive litigation on the fee issue,” a number of questions remain unresolved.

Thus, the justices sent the case back to the Eighth Circuit, once again.

Update: Chief Justice Roberts denies states’ request to stay the EPA’s mercury rule

By: Rox Laird on March 3rd, 2016

Chief Justice John Roberts issued a brief order today denying a petition by 20 states, including Iowa, seeking an order blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing a challenged air pollution regulation. (See Wednesday’s post below for more background.) Chief Justice Roberts’s order does not affect the underlying issue in the case, which is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court could decide Friday whether to (indirectly) review the Iowa Supreme Court’s telemed abortion decision

By: Administrator on November 10th, 2015

By Ryan Koopmans

When the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court meet for conference this Friday, an Iowa Supreme Court case will be on their agenda (kind of).

In June, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Iowa’s ban on telemed abortion violates both the U.S. and Iowa constitutions because it places “undue burden on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.”  The operative phrase of that quote–“undue burden” — comes from the U.S Supreme Court’s opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and it has become the definitive test of whether a law that restricts abortion is constitutional.

Lower courts are now disagreeing, however, on how the undue-burden test should be applied, and in the Iowa telemed abortion case (Planned Parenthood v. Iowa Board of Medicine) the Iowa Supreme Court took sides.

Adopting language from the Seventh Circuit, the Iowa Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Wiggins, wrote that the application of the undue-burden test differs depending upon the state’s reason for regulating abortion. If the law’s purpose is to “advance fetal life,” then the law is constitutional unless “its purpose or effect is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”  If, however, the law’s purpose is  to “further the health or interest of a woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy,” then the court must scrutinize the state’s medical justifications and weigh them against the burden that the law places on a woman’s ability to terminate her pregnancy.  The more “feebler” the medical justifications, Justice Wiggins wrote (again, borrowing from the Seventh Circuit), the more likely that any burden (even a slight one) will be an undue one.

The Iowa Board of Medicine’s stated purpose in banning telemed abortion was to protect the mother’s health, but the Iowa Supreme Court thought that the health benefits were “very limited.”  In weighing those “very limited” benefits against the burden on the mother (having to travel a greater distance to receive in-person treatment), the justices came to the conclusion that the law violated both the Iowa and U.S. constitutions (though the plaintiffs’ case was based solely on a violation of the state constitution).

But just 10 days earlier, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit came to the opposite conclusion.

In 2013, Texas enacted a statute that, one, requires abortion clinics to comply with standards for ambulatory surgical centers, and, two, prohibits a physician from performing an abortion unless that physician has admitting privileges at a hospital within thirty miles of the location where the abortion will be performed.  The justification for the law — like the justification for Iowa’s telemed regulation — was to protect the health of the mother.  And the burden that the law placed on women choosing to have an abortion — like the burden placed on Iowa women under the telemed abortion regulation — was having to travel greater distances to receive an abortion at a clinic that could meet the new, stricter standards.

Unlike the Iowa Supreme Court, though, the Fifth Circuit concluded that it did not need to closely scrutinize and weigh the state’s medical justifications.  As long as the justifications are rational, the Fifth Circuit concluded, then the focal point of the analysis is on whether the burden (traveling greater distances to receive an abortion) is an undue one.

The Fifth Circuit said that it is not — at least not in most cases.  The court did rule that one clinic could stay open, despite not meeting the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center standards, because the next closest clinic that performed abortions (and met the statute) is 235 miles away.  That, the court concluded, is too far.  But lesser distances (specifically, those under 150 miles) do not amount to an undue burden, the court ruled.

The plaintiffs in that case are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision.  They argue that it’s wrong, and (importantly for getting the Supreme Court’s attention) they argue that the Fifth Circuit’s version of the undue-burden test is at odds with the version that other courts, including the Iowa Supreme Court, apply.  The Fifth Circuit’s standard, plaintiffs argue, “stands in direct conflict with decisions of the Seventh and Ninth Circuits and the Iowa Supreme Court, which hold that courts must examine the extent to which laws regulating abortion actually further a valid state interest in assessing whether the burdens they impose on abortion access are undue.”

In response, Texas says that the Fifth Circuit got it right, and that the split among the lower courts isn’t as deep as the plaintiffs advertise.  According to Texas, the Seventh and Ninth Circuit opinions that the plaintiffs point to are in conflict with precedent in those Circuits, and the Iowa Supreme Court decision is an “outlier.”  As a result, Texas says that this case is not Supreme Court material.

So the justices must now decide whether this is indeed an issue worthy of their review.  The Texas case was listed on the Supreme Court’s conference calendar for last Friday (November 6), but the Court relisted it for this week’s conference.  Thus, we might know as early as this Friday whether the justices will take up this issue, and thus whether it will (indirectly) review the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Iowa Board of Medicine. 


U.S. Supreme Court denies review in Iowa drunk driving case

By: Administrator on April 28th, 2014

By Ryan Koopmans

The Iowa Supreme Court won’t have to reconsider its ruling in State v. Kooima after all.

Kooima held by a 4-3 vote that police may not stop a vehicle based solely on an anonymous tip that the driver is drunk. That conclusion seemed very much in doubt after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week in Navarette v. California, which held that officers lawfully stopped a vehicle based on an anonymous tipster’s claim that the car had run her off the road. As we noted then, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Kooima under the Federal Constitution, so Navarette’s contrary ruling on similar facts suggested a remand was on the horizon.

Not so. This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the State’s request to review Kooima. The Court didn’t say why (which is the norm), but it probably came down to a distinction between the tips in each case. In Kooima, the tipster didn’t report any reckless or dangerous driving; he claimed that he was watching a group of guys leaving a bar and “[e]verybody in the damn vehicle” is drunk. In Navarette, on the other hand, the tipster reported she was run off the road by the suspect’s dangerous driving.

That’s about the only meaningful distinction between the two cases (see our comparison here), but details matter under the Fourth Amendment. And the cops will have to keep those details in mind the next time they get an anonymous tip about a possible drunk driver.

U.S. Supreme Court splits with the Iowa Supreme Court on anonymous tips of drunk driving

By: Administrator on April 22nd, 2014

By Ryan Koopmans

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Navarette v. California that officers lawfully stopped a vehicle based on an anonymous tipster’s claim that the car had run her off the road. The Court, in a 5-4 decision by Justice Thomas, concluded that the anonymous tip gave officers reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. Back in January, we wrote that the outcome in Navarette could require the Iowa Supreme Court to revisit its decision in State v. Kooima.  That seems almost certain now.


In Kooima, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled by a 4-3 vote that officers may not stop a vehicle based solely on an anonymous tip that the driver is drunk. The Court, per Justice Wiggins, held that such a stop violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The State of Iowa then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse that decision, and the Supreme Court has been holding the case pending the outcome in  Navarette.

Based on Justice Thomas’s decision today, it looks like the stop in Kooima may have been okay, at least as far as the Fourth Amendment is concerned.  Indeed, Justice Mansfield’s dissent parallels much of today’s decision in Navarette.  He would have upheld the stop because:

  • –The caller reported criminal activity based on “firsthand contemporaneous observations” (the caller saw the group drinking in a bar and get into the car);
  • –Officers corroborated several predictive statements in the call (they saw the vehicle arrive in town about ten minutes after the call from a bar eight miles away);
  • –“Calling 911 is no way to make a false report and get away with it” (calls are traceable and false reports are criminal); and
  • –The law requires reasonable suspicion, not certainty (maybe a group of guys leaving a bar at 11:21 p.m. didn’t drink much, but officers can stop the car to make sure).

In upholding the stop Navarette, the Supreme Court made similar observations:

  • –The caller “necessarily claimed eyewitness knowledge” (she reported being run off the road by a specific vehicle);
  • –Police confirmed the vehicle’s location shortly after the caller’s “contemporaneous report” (they spotted the vehicle 19 miles to the south 18 minutes after the call);
  • –A tipster would “think twice” before using 911 to make a false report (technology lets authorities trace the calls and false reports are punishable);
  • –Officers need not rule out all possible innocent explanations—say, an “unruly child”—before stopping a vehicle (waiting could have “disastrous consequences”).

After Navarette, Justice Mansfield’s dissent could soon become the majority opinion in Kooima. But there is a twist. The Iowa Supreme Court decided Kooima under the Federal Constitution. Navarette is the law on that. But if the four justices in the Kooima majority want the same result, and the defendant preserved the argument, they could decide the case the same way under the Iowa Constitution.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.