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Jury instruction on ‘stand your ground’ defense violated the Fifth Amendment, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | April 22, 2020

Iowa law requires that criminal defendants who invoke a “stand your ground” defense must have informed law-enforcement authorities of the use of deadly force. That requirement, on its face, may or may not violate a defendant’s constitutional rights, but a defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination could be violated if a trial judge informs a jury of the requirement.

That was the holding of the Iowa Supreme Court, in a 5-1 ruling in the case of State v. Gibbs handed down April 17.

Levi Gibbs III, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of a Fort Dodge man, argued on appeal that a provision of Iowa’s stand-your-ground statute applied in his case is unconstitutional on its face because it compels self-incrimination.

Skipping over the facial constitutional question, the Supreme Court ruled that the Webster County District Court violated Gibbs’ Fifth Amendment right by instructing the jury that the defendant was required by law to notify law enforcement of his use of deadly force, which Gibbs failed to do.

Although the trial court’s instruction “unconstitutionally penalizes the defendant’s silence,” the error was harmless in Gibbs’ case because the evidence of his guilt was “overwhelming.” The shooting was captured on video and backed up by witnesses.

Justice Edward Mansfield wrote the opinion for the Court, which was joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Brent Appel, Thomas Waterman, and Dana Oxley.

Justice Christopher McDonald wrote a separate opinion concurring in the judgment regarding Gibbs’ guilt, but he disagreed with the majority’s holding on the Fifth Amendment violation. McDonald’s concurrence also included a discussion explaining his view that appellants must fully brief any argument made on appeal based on the Iowa Constitution. Oxley joined that portion of McDonald’s opinion.

The Iowa General Assembly recently passed legislation expanding the stand-your-ground defense, which added a provision in Iowa Code section 704.2B that states: “If a person uses deadly force, the person shall notify or cause another to notify a law enforcement agency about the person’s use of deadly force within a reasonable time period after the person’s use of the deadly force, if the person or another person is capable of providing such notification.”

Unlike statutes in other states that criminalize the failure to report the use of deadly force, however, Iowa’s law makes it a condition for invoking the stand-your-ground defense, not a crime by itself.

“Therefore, we pass over the question of whether that section violates the Fifth Amendment merely by being on the books,” Mansfield wrote. “We turn to the more salient issue of how section 704.2B was used by the District Court in this case.”

The trial court’s instruction to the jury said, in part:

“A person using deadly force is required to notify or cause another to notify a law enforcement agency about his use of deadly force within a reasonable time period after the use of the deadly force, if the defendant or another person is capable of providing such notification.”

The prosecution, in its closing argument to the jury, made a point of Gibbs’ failure to do that.

This jury instruction, Mansfield wrote, puts a defendant who used deadly force in a dilemma: “Either the person gives up his or her right to remain silent, or in a later prosecution, the person faces a jury told that he or she violated the law in not doing so,” he wrote.

The question is whether this imposes an improper penalty on the exercise of the right to remain silent guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“We think it does,” the Court said. “A jury instruction authorizing an inference of guilt in a murder case because the defendant breached a legal duty to make a report to authorities exacts a significant penalty on the defendant’s right to remain silent.”

In response to Gibbs’ argument on appeal, the State had argued that Iowa’s stand-your-ground defense in Iowa is statutory and that the Legislature is free to put conditions on the use of that defense.

The Court disagreed. The Legislature’s reporting requirement applies to any assertion of the justification defense in a homicide case, which has long existed in common law.

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