Iowa Supreme Court declines to overrule its precedent allowing multiple robbery charges when theft victims are also assaulted

by Rox Laird | May 16, 2024

In 2022 Brandon Lee entered the home of an elderly couple in Coggon, physically assaulted each of them with the aim of forcing them to reveal the location of cash, and left with $50,000 they had kept in a safe in the basement.

Lee was convicted by a Linn County jury for one count of theft and two counts of first-degree robbery and sentenced to 25 years in prison on each robbery count to be served consecutively, or 50 years. Sentences for related charges were to be served concurrently.

Lee appealed his conviction to the Iowa Supreme Court, arguing that he did not have the intent to commit two separate thefts to support two separate robbery convictions and, as a result, the trial court imposed an illegal sentence.

The Supreme Court disagreed in a decision handed down May 10, saying the State offered sufficient evidence that Lee intended to commit two separate and distinct thefts, which justified his conviction on two separate robberies.

Iowa’s robbery statute, Iowa Code § 711.1(1), says in part: “A person commits a robbery when, having the intent to commit a theft, the person does any of the following acts to assist or further the commission of the intended theft or the person’s escape from the scene thereof with or without the stolen property: a. Commits an assault upon another. b. Threatens another with or purposely puts another in fear of immediate serious injury. c. Threatens to commit immediately any forcible felony.”

Chief Justice Susan Christensen wrote the opinion for the Court joined by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, and Christopher McDonald, and joined in part by Justice David May. Justice Matthew McDermott filed a dissent joined in part by Justice Dana Oxley and in part by Justice May.

A key question before the Court is the proper application of the “single-larceny rule” regarding how many crimes can be tried and prosecuted in a robbery case. The single-larceny rule – first articulated by the Iowa Supreme Court in a 1912 decision – provides that “theft of property belonging to two different persons at the same place at the same time constitutes one single larceny.”

The rule was last addressed by the Court in its 2014 decision in State v. Copenhaver, which held that the “unit of prosecution” for robbery requires that a defendant must have intended to commit a theft coupled with an assault or threat of serious injury. In that case, the Court held that the defendant could be prosecuted for two robberies at a bank where he demanded and received cash from two different tellers.

A footnote in the Copenhaver decision said the single-larceny rule was not applicable to that case. The footnote said the new criminal code adopted by the Legislature in 1976 (Iowa Code section 714) gave the State the discretion to charge a defendant with multiple crimes in spite of the single-larceny rule.

Both the State and Lee argued that the Court should overturn Copenhaver.

Lee argued that to the extent that Copenhaver concluded that the single-larceny rule no longer applies after the enactment of section 714.3, it should be overruled, so the rule could be applied to his case.

The State argued for overturning Copenhaver, but for different reasons. The State argued that, under Copenhaver, the State is required to prove a separate attempted theft to support each independent robbery conviction, whereas the robbery statute does not require more than one theft to convict a defendant for more than one robbery.

The Court rejected both arguments for overturning Copenhaver as it relates to the Court’s interpretation of the applicability of the single-larceny rule.

The Court said the Legislature has neither amended section 714.3 nor enacted the single-larceny rule by statute in response to the Copenhaver decision and a similar ruling a decade earlier. “Thus, we presume the legislature has acquiesced in our interpretation of the effect of section 714.3 and the applicability of the single-larceny rule,” Chief Justice Christensen wrote. “Accordingly, despite the State and the defendant’s arguments, we decline to overrule Copenhaver and hold it is still the controlling law and applies to the facts of the case here.”

Applying Copenhaver, the Supreme Court found that there was substantial evidence supporting the district court’s conclusion that Lee committed separate and distinct thefts. The Supreme Court noted that “there were breaks between the defendant’s actions” during the seven-minute incident, and that the defendant committed one theft against each of the two persons in the home. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the sentence imposed was not illegal.

In his dissent, Justice McDermott disagreed with the majority’s holding that Lee committed two robberies punishable by two separate sentences. Justice McDermott said the separate assaults of the couple do not justify a conclusion that Lee intended to steal anything other than the money in the safe.

“The majority finds that Lee’s actions constituted two separate thefts and thus affirms his convictions for two separate robberies,” Justice McDermott wrote. “In my review of the record, I can discern only one theft. Because one theft can give rise to only one robbery conviction, regardless of the number of assaults committed to further that theft, I must respectfully dissent.”

Justice McDermott also disagreed with the majority’s reliance on the legal doctrine of legislative acquiescence in declining to overrule Copenhaver.

“If we erroneously interpreted [section] 714.3 in Copenhaver, then we should not let legislative inaction prevent us from remedying our error,” he wrote. “Divining meaning from legislative inaction may be a useful fiction, but it’s a fiction nonetheless, and a pernicious one at that, diverting us from the real work of statutory interpretation that courts are called to perform. Legislative acquiescence risks lulling us into complacency based on superstition that inaction equals approval.”

Justice Oxley joined the dissent only as to McDermott’s discussion of Lee’s separate robbery convictions. Justice May joined the dissent only as to its discussion of legislative acquiescence.





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The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in ten cases during March 2024. These opinions are summarized below.

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