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

by Ryan Koompans | March 11, 2013

By Ryan Koompans

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

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

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

State v. Kooima

On their way home from a day at the Iowa Great Lakes, Leon Kooima and his friends stopped for drinks at a steakhouse in Doon, Iowa.  The group stayed for about forty-five minutes and then continued on to nearby Rock Valley, where Officer Kyle Munneke was waiting.  A steakhouse patron had called 911 to report that all everyone in Kooima’s vehicle was drunk. The patron, who didn’t identify himself, described the vehicle and stated that a “carload of Rock Valley merchants, huge money guys” were drunk and heading towards Rock Valley.  “What bothers me,” he told the 911 dispatcher, is that “these guys get away with everything, cuz they know everybody in Rock Valley and they think they can do everything.”

Officer Munneke didn’t observe Kooima violate any traffic laws, but he stopped the vehicle after following it for six blocks.  Kooima, who smelled of alcohol, was subjected to a field sobriety test and a breathalyzer.  Kooima failed both tests and was charged with drunk driving.

Kooima argued that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment. In his view, an anonymous tip, without more, doesn’t give a police officer sufficient suspicion to pull him over, especially when the caller appears to hold a grudge (“huge money guys” who “think they can do everything”).

That argument isn’t without support.  In the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case of Florida v. J.L., an anonymous caller told the Miami-Dade Police that a young black male standing at a particular bus stop and wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a gun.  The police went to the scene and found a young man matching that description.  He didn’t do anything to make the officers suspicious, but the officers frisked him anyway.  And as predicted by the anonymous informant, they found a gun.

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that search violated the Fourth Amendment because the anonymous tip lacked sufficient “indicia of reliability” to create reasonable suspicion of a crime.  But the Court also suggested that the indicia-of-reliability standard is inversely related to the potential danger of the crime: “We do not say,” wrote Justice Ginsburg, “that a report of a person carrying a bomb need bear the indicia of reliability we demand for a report of a person carrying a firearm before the police can constitutionally conduct a frisk.”

So Kooima’s case may turn on whether drunk driving is closer to carrying a bomb than a gun, and whether the Iowa Supreme Court thinks proportionality matters to the Fourth Amendment analysis.

At least two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court seem to think it does.  In 2008, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that an anonymous tip of drunk driving cannot, by itself, justify a traffic stop.  Virginia petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse that decision, but the justices voted not to hear the case.  Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Scalia, dissented from the court’s decision to deny review.  He believed the Court should consider whether J.L. applies to drunk driving, given the high threat of danger:

In a case like J. L., the police can often observe the subject of a tip and step in before actual harm occurs; with drunk driving, such a wait-and-see approach may prove fatal. Drunk driving is always dangerous, as it is occurring. . . . The effect of the [Virginia Supreme Court’s rule] will be to grant drunk drivers “one free swerve” before they can legally be pulled over by police.  It would be difficult for an officer to explain to the family of a motorist killed by that swerve that the police had a tip that the driver of the other car was drunk, but that they were powerless to pull him over, even for a quick check.

The Iowa Supreme Court will now have to address that one-free-swerve rule.  Depending on how they rule, Chief Justice Roberts may have a second chance to convince his colleagues that the issue is worthy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s review.

State v. Ragland

The prohibition on cruel-and-unusual punishment has changed a lot in the last three decades.

In 1986, at the age of 17, Jeffrey Ragland was involved in a fight that ended in the murder of Timothy Sieff.  Ragland didn’t strike the deadly blow, but he started the unprovoked fight and continued fighting after Sieff went down.  A jury convicted Ragland of first-degree murder, and the court sentenced him to the mandatory penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Two years later, Ragland took his case to the Iowa Supreme Court.  He argued, among other things, that his sentence violated the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  The Iowa Supreme Court rejected that argument—in a single paragraph.

Just over 20 years later, in 2009, seven different Iowa Supreme Court justices took another look at juvenile sentencing.  In State v. Bruegger, a five-justice majority, Justice Appel writing, vacated a 25-year sentence for statutory rape, which was enhanced based on criminal activity the defendant committed as a juvenile.  The court didn’t say that the sentence was necessarily unconstitutional—it remanded the case to the district court to consider additional evidence—but it strongly hinted as much.

Justice Cady, joined by Justice Wiggins, dissented:

[S]entencing parameters is an area of the law for which courts are required to give great deference to the policies of the legislature as written into sentencing statutes. The individual-assessment approach introduced by the majority in this case will only permit the courts to substitute their judgment for that of the legislature in cases to follow. This approach is contrary to the principles of judicial restraint and separation of powers.

*          *          *

Courts must adhere to the constitutional framework, even when the result is difficult to swallow. Furthermore, we must not forget that we are not the only guardians of justice in our government. For example, prosecutors must use sound judgment in charging and prosecuting defendants who may be swept up by broad legislative policies that were not likely intended to capture them. The governor, too, is empowered to commute a sentence viewed to be unjust. Finally, consistent with the one true strength of our democracy, the legislature can repair mistakes.

Fast forward three more years.  At the end of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court term, a bare majority of the justices, Justice Kagan writing, ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole for a juvenile murderer is unconstitutional.

Reenter Jeffrey Ragland.  He, like all juveniles convicted of first-degree murder in Iowa, was automatically sentenced to life without parole.  So the rule in Miller would apply to him.

But not so fast.  Clearly not a fan of the Supreme Court judging Iowa’s sentencing policy, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad took Regland’s sentence out of the heart of Miller by using his commutation power to change “without possibility of parole” to “with the possibility for parole after 60 years.”  He did the same to the other 37 juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

So Regland is now back before the Iowa Supreme Court.  He argues—and a state district court agreed—that even if this new 60-year parole doesn’t fall directly within the holding of Miller, it violates Miller’s core principles.

But the State says no.  Life with the possibility of parole is not the same thing as life without the possibility of parole, even if the parole opportunity comes after a really long time in jail.  What the State is doing, in effect, is pushing the logical limit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding.  The juveniles who are subject to the Governor’s commutations will be in their mid to late 70s when their first parole hearing comes around.  And, given the probabilities, some of them will likely be dead by then.  So is that a de facto life sentence?  And if so, where’s the line?  Is 50 years okay?  45 years? 30 years? 10 years? Must the State reevaluate the defendant on his 18th or 21st birthday?

And what about the disparity in life expectancy between men and women?  Does the constitutionality of a sentence come down to gender or race?  Surely not, but that is the logical extension of using mortality tables.

So the Iowa Supreme Court justices will have their hands full come April 9 when they hear Ragland’s appeal.  And depending on what the Iowa Supreme Court says, this case might be an addition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s increasing juvenile-sentencing docket.


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