Iowa Supreme kicks off its 2020-21 term with oral arguments this week

by Rox Laird | September 14, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear its first round of oral arguments of the 2020-21 term Wednesday and Thursday, and the first in person oral arguments heard since March due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Sept. 16 and 17 oral arguments will feature justices, attorneys, court staff, and members of the public observing the Court’s rules requiring face coverings and physical distancing in the Judicial Branch Building and courtroom.

Among the 13 appeals that will be submitted this week, the Court will consider arguments on the constitutionality of police searches of a suspect’s garbage left for trash collectors, what exceptions Iowa law allows for cell phone use while driving, and whether the Iowa General Assembly breached constitutional separation of powers by dictating what cases Iowa appellate courts may take on direct review and by barring pro se filings by defendants who are represented by counsel.

Following are brief summaries of the cases that will be submitted this week. [Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read briefs in the September cases.]

Krystal Wagner v. State of Iowa and William Spece

Oral argument set for Sept. 16, 9 a.m.


  1.    Does the Iowa Tort Claims Act apply to plaintiffs’ constitutional tort causes of action?
  2.    Is the available remedy under the Iowa Tort Claims Act for excessive force by a law enforcement officer inadequate based on the unavailability of punitive damages? And if not, what considerations should courts address in determining whether legislative remedies for excessive force are adequate?
  3.    Are plaintiffs’ claims under the Iowa Constitution subject to the administrative exhaustion requirement in Iowa Code Section 669.5(1)?
  4.    Are plaintiffs required to bring their Iowa constitutional claims in the appropriate Iowa District Court under Iowa Code Section 669.4?

Shane Jensen was holding a handgun in the presence of several law enforcement officers, including Iowa Department of Natural Resources Officer William Spence, who fired his rifle and killed Jensen. Jensen’s mother, Krystal Wagner, sued the State of Iowa and Officer Spece in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa for violations of the federal and state constitutions and state law. The federal court dismissed the claims against the State, and against Spece in his official capacity. Before addressing the remaining question of Spece’s liability while acting in his individual capacity, the federal District Court submitted the above four unresolved questions of Iowa law to the Iowa Supreme Court.

State v. Struve

Set for oral argument Sept. 16, 9 a.m.

Question: Was a traffic stop justified if the driver was not texting but scrolling through pictures on his cell phone?

Steven Edward Struve appeals his conviction in Clinton County District Court for possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. Struve argues Clinton police officers lacked probable cause to stop his vehicle and to search his vehicle. Officers testified they observed Struve swiping his thumb across the illuminated screen of his cell phone while driving as the basis for making the traffic stop for illegally texting while driving. Struve argues the statute allows certain cell phone uses while driving, such as GPS navigation, and that he was scrolling through pictures, not texting, and the stop was thus unwarranted.

State v. Buelow

Set for oral argument Sept. 16, 9 a.m.

Question: Are a victim’s mental-health records admissible in a murder trial?

The State seeks further review of a Dec. 18, 2019, Court of Appeals decision reversing a Dubuque County District Court ruling regarding admissibility of the victim’s mental-health records in the second-degree murder trial of Fontae Cole Buelow. Buelow, who was convicted of stabbing Samantha Link to death, argued at trial that Link’s stabbing was suicide, and he sought to introduce her mental-health records to show previous suicide attempts to support his defense. The State argues that the evidence was properly excluded by the District Court because evidence of Link’s suicide attempts was in the remote past and thus not relevant to her state of mind on the night she died.

State v. Shackford

Will be submitted to the Court without oral argument Sept. 16

Question: Were court costs properly assessed and the defendant’s ability to pay considered?

Tavish Coleon Shackford seeks further review of a Jan. 9 Iowa Court of Appeals decision affirming in part and vacating in part a Polk County District Court sentencing order following his conviction for willful injury. Shackford challenges the trial court’s assessment of court costs and correctional fees without considering apportioning costs between two criminal counts, and without determining whether he had a reasonable ability to pay the fees.

State v. Boothby

 Set for oral argument Sept. 16, 1:30 p.m.

Question: Must an expert witness be called to present evidence on cell phone data?

Jacob A. Boothby seeks further review of an April 15 decision of the Iowa Court of Appeals affirming his Clinton County conviction for assault after twice ramming his car into the back of another car on a county road and then fleeing. Boothby was traced to the scene by a Clinton County sheriff’s deputy using Boothby’s cell phone activity linked to a nearby cell tower. Boothby argues his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the deputy’s testimony, failing to challenge the deputy’s expertise regarding cell tower technology, and failing to challenge admission of his cell phone records as hearsay. Boothby urges the Supreme Court to hold that a witness must be qualified as an expert under Rule 5.702 in order to present evidence of cell phone historical site data.

State v. Uranga

Will be submitted to the Court Sept. 16 without oral argument.

Question: Was newly discovered evidence sufficient to warrant a new trial?

Joshua Kelly Uranga seeks further review of a March 18 ruling by the Iowa Court of Appeals affirming his conviction by a Boone County jury of for failure to comply with sex offender registration requirement. Uranga sought a new trial based on newly discovered evidence, but the trial court denied Uranga’s motion saying the new evidence was not material and probably would not have changed the result.

State v. Wright

Set for oral argument Sept. 17, 9 a.m.

Question: Does a police search of a suspect’s trash violate the Fourth Amendment?

Nicholas Wright seeks reversal of a Feb. 5 Iowa Court of Appeals decision affirming a Cerro Gordo District Court ruling that a Clear Lake police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment by searching a suspect’s trash bags removed from his garbage cans next to the alley behind his home. Wright argues the Court of Appeals incorrectly concluded that he had no expectation of privacy, based on a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in dismissing his motion to suppress evidence of illegal drug possession derived from his garbage. Wright, citing a more recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, argues that his garbage bags and trash cans are personal “effects” under the Fourth Amendment’s protection of “persons, houses, papers and effects” from unreasonable searches and seizures.

State v. Derrick Earl Johnson

Set for argument Sept. 17, 9 a.m.

Question: Is homicide by vehicle by reckless driving a lesser-included offense of homicide by vehicle by operating while intoxicated?

Derrick Earl Johnson appeals his conviction in Black Hawk County District Court of homicide by vehicle while operating under the influence. Two issues Johnson raises on appeal: (1) The District Court erred in denying his request to instruct the jury on the offense of homicide by vehicle by reckless driving as a lesser-included of the offense homicide by vehicle by operating while under the influence. (2) The trial court erred in granting the State’s motion in limine asking the court to prohibit Johnson from entering evidence that a child killed in the crash was not secured in a child restraint system at the time of the crash and would have survived the crash if restrained.

State v. Boldon

Set for oral argument Sept. 17, 1:30 p.m.

Question: Are legislative limits on direct appellate review unconstitutional?

Daquon Boldon appeals his conviction and sentence in Black Hawk County District Court following his guilty plea to possession of a firearm by a felon. Boldon argues that recent amendments to Iowa Code Section 814 that would bar direct appellate review of his guilty pleas and his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are unconstitutional. He also argues that the District Court improperly considered his juvenile delinquency adjudications in considering his sentences in adult court. Boldon requests the Supreme Court vacate his sentences and remand for a new sentencing hearing before a different judge.

Terry v. Dorothy

Set for argument Sept. 17, 1:30 p.m.

Question: Does settlement of a workers’ compensation claim bar a claim against a coworker?

Megan Dorothy seeks reversal of a Feb. 5 ruling of the Iowa Court of Appeals reversing a Story County District Court holding that Brian Terry’s compromise settlement on his workers’ compensation claim was a final discharge of all claims, including against other employees, and thus barred Terry’s subsequent suit against a coworker alleging gross negligence that caused his workplace injury. The appeals court, with one dissent, held that the settlement was limited to workers’ compensation claims under Iowa Code Chapter 85, whereas Terry’s subsequent gross negligence claim was based on common law outside of Chapter 85.

State v. Thompson

Will be submitted to the Court Sept. 17 without oral argument

Question: Did the Legislature breach constitutional separation of powers by barring pro se filings by defendants who are represented by counsel?

Howard J. Thompson appeals his convictions in Scott County District Court on two counts of committing fraudulent acts to attempt to obtain controlled substances with false prescriptions. In addition to challenging his convictions, Thompson urges the Supreme Court to rule that the Iowa General Assembly violated constitutional separation of powers when it enacted legislation in 2019 barring a defendant who is represented by counsel from filing any pro se documents or briefs, and barring courts from considering such pro se filings. Thompson urges the Court to consider his pro se brief and arguments to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to support his conviction.

State v. Irvin Johnson Jr.

Will be submitted to the Court without oral argument Sept. 17

Question: Was marijuana possession a necessarily included offence of felony eluding enhanced by a driver’s possession of marijuana?

The State seeks further review of a March 18 ruling by the Iowa Court of appeals vacating in part Irvin Johnson Jr.’s convictions in Black Hawk County District Court for felony eluding and marijuana possession and remanding for correction of an illegal sentence. The appeals court held that the state failed to rebut the presumption that marijuana possession was a necessarily included offence of felony eluding enhanced by the driver’s possession of marijuana, and the court held that the offenses must merge under Iowa Code Section 701.9 and the double-jeopardy clause.

State v. Roby

Will be submitted to the Court without oral argument Sept. 17

Question: Was a subsequent criminal charge from the same incident double-jeopardy?

Christopher Roby Jr. seeks further review of an April 1 Court of Appeals ruling affirming his conviction and sentencing by the Black Hawk County District Court for eluding, possession with intent to deliver, and third-degree sexual abuse. Following his sentencing, Roby filed a pro se motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Roby argues the State committed double-jeopardy in pursuing the eluding charge after he pled guilty to speeding arising from the same incident.


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On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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