A pro se trip through three Iowa courts winds up at a dead end

by Rox Laird | May 14, 2020

When prosecutors dismissed a marijuana possession charge against Lori Mathes in Monona County, she thought that was the end of her ordeal, with the exception of what she understood to be a $500 bill for court costs.

Instead, the court’s dismissal order included nearly $3,000 in restitution owed by Mathes, including a bill for her legal defense by court-appointed attorneys.

Thus began Mathes’ circuitous route through three courts, which generated eight briefs from the parties and amici along the way, and ended up in a stalemate at the Iowa Supreme Court.

Mathes’ legal journey began in October 2017 when the State filed a motion in Monona County District Court to dismiss the illegal drug possession charge, which was approved by the District Court with an order that Mathes pay county sheriff fees, court-appointed attorney fees, and restitution.

Mathes subsequently wrote to the judge saying she had not agreed to pay more than $500 in restitution and fees, and said she wanted to appeal. The Supreme Court transferred her appeal to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the District Court. That led to another pro se application from Mathes for further review to the Supreme Court.

In response, the Court asked for supplemental briefs from Mathes’ lawyer and the State, and it invited amicus curiae briefs from interested parties, asking them to address two questions:

First, does the court have subject matter jurisdiction to assess court costs in a criminal case when the court dismisses all the charges?

Second, if the court does have subject matter jurisdiction, “does the court have the authority to assess costs or, in the alternative, is the assessment of costs an illegal sentence under these circumstances?”

In an amicus brief filed in response to the Court’s invitation, the State Appellate Defender said the District Court has subject matter jurisdiction in proceedings where court costs and court-appointed attorney fees are assessed. But it said that when a criminal case is dismissed, the defendant is not liable for court costs or reimbursement of legal assistance costs.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, joined in a brief by Iowa Legal Aid, and the Fines and Fees Justice Center, argued that “neither the Iowa Code nor the U.S. or Iowa Constitutions confer subject matter jurisdiction to the District Court to assess [indigent defense fee reimbursement] or other court costs to a criminal defendant when all charges have been dismissed.”

The Iowa County Attorneys Association answered “yes” to both questions posed by the Court.

“Dismissals of criminal cases with costs assessed against the defendant are common – so common that they are part of the essential ‘toolkit’ of any criminal law practitioner,” the association said. “Defendants often – indeed, regularly – have multiple unrelated criminal cases pending at any one time. Every prosecutor and public defender in Iowa have negotiated a disposition where the defendant pleads guilty to the most serious case and the rest get dismissed at his cost.”

On May 8, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its opinion, but the Court was equally divided:

Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield would affirm the Court of Appeals dismissing the appeal from the District Court order assessing court costs, whereas Justices Brent Appel, Christopher McDonald and Dana Oxley would have vacated the Court of Appeals decision and the District Court cost award.

Justice Matthew McDermott, who was appointed to the Court in April, took no part in the case.

Which means that there was no decision, the ruling of the District Court is “affirmed by operation of law,” and the final answer to the questions raised in the Mathes case will await another case on another day.


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