UPDATES & ANALYSIS

3.05

Iowa Supreme Court will seek to unlock legislative intent in an evening session March 9 at Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School

by Rox Laird | March 5, 2020

When is a padlock just a padlock and when is it a “theft detection device”?

That is the question before the Iowa Supreme Court in an oral argument to be heard March 9 in an evening session open to the public at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. [Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read the appellant and appellee briefs in the case, State v. Ross.]

Charles Ross appealed his conviction in Cerro Gordo County District Court on a charge of illegally possessing a “tool, instrument, or device with the intent to use it in the unlawful removal of a theft detection device.”

Ross and a co-defendant were charged with theft for using a bolt cutter to remove a padlock and a steel cable securing a riding lawnmower at the Mason City Mills Fleet Farm store in Mason City and making off with the mower.

Ross entered a written plea of guilty to three charges, including violation of Iowa Code Section 714.7B(3), which makes it illegal to possess any tool with the intent of removing a “theft detection device.”

He subsequently appealed his conviction and two-year jail sentence on that charge, arguing that his right to effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment was violated when his defense attorney allowed the trial court to accept Ross’s guilty plea to a charge that had no factual basis.

The question before the Court — which it has not before addressed — is the statutory definition of “theft detection device.”

Code Section 714.7B(4) defines it as “any electronic or other device attached to goods, wares, or merchandise on display or for sale.” Ross argues that the bolt cutter was used to remove a padlock and steel cable, neither of which meet the definition theft detection devices.

By including any electronic or “other device” attached to merchandise, the definition read literally would include anything from a price tag to the peg on which merchandise is hung, Ross argues in a brief filed with the Court. He asserts that common sense suggests the Legislature had in mind such things as electronic tags that set off alarms if not properly removed before merchandise is taken from the store.

The State, in a brief filed with the Court by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, disagrees, saying a padlock and wire cable plainly meet the statutory definition.

The Legislature intended the statute to be read broadly to include both high-tech devices that set off store alarms and low-tech devices like padlocks and wire cables, the State argues. The statute does not require that the store owner be immediately alerted to a theft, only that the device is attached to the item on display.

“Even if the context does require that the device have some type of ‘detection’ property, however, the padlock and wire cable here fit that definition,” the State argues. “A cut padlock and loose wire cable would alert the owner of the item on display or for sale that the item was taken without permission just as well as the devices that Ross identifies in his brief.”

The oral argument in State v. Ross will begin at 7 p.m. in the Roosevelt High School auditorium at 4419 Center Street in Des Moines. A public reception with members of the Supreme Court will follow in the school’s media center.

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