UPDATES & ANALYSIS

12.15

November 2023 Opinion Roundup

by Matt McGuire | December 15, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in six cases during November 2023. You can read Rox Laird’s summary State v. Amisi at the link here. The remaining opinions from November are summarized below.

 

State v. Murphy Lee Rutherford, No. 22–0553

Opinion Date: November 3, 2023

On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Issues:

  • Whether the Court of Appeals possessed jurisdiction over the defendant’s appeal of his sentence following a guilty plea.
  • Whether the defendant’s guilty plea was supported by an adequate factual basis.

Murphy Lee Rutherford entered a written guilty plea to theft and felon-in-possession charges and was sentenced. Following his sentence by the Iowa District Court for Washington County, Rutherford appealed, challenging his sentence and the factual basis of his plea. The Iowa Court of Appeals rejected Rutherford’s challenge to his sentence but found jurisdiction lacking as to Rutherford’s argument that his plea lacked factual basis. On further review, the Iowa Supreme Court held that once the Iowa Court of Appeals found jurisdiction to review Rutherford’s challenge to his sentence, it possessed jurisdiction to hear the entire appeal and should have addressed Rutherford’s factual-basis challenge as well. However, the Supreme Court also held that while possessing jurisdiction, it lacked authority under Iowa law to resolve Rutherford’s factual-basis challenge and could not reach the merits of the challenge. The Court, therefore, affirmed in part and vacated in part the Iowa Court of Appeals’ ruling and affirmed Rutherford’s sentence. Justice Oxley authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

Justice McDermott submitted a special concurrence. Justice McDermott would have reached the merits of Rutherford’s factual-basis challenge and would have affirmed Rutherford’s conviction on that basis. Justice McDermott expressed concern about the inefficiency and potential injustice of using civil post-conviction-relief lawsuits to address challenges to the factual basis of guilty pleas. He argued that this approach leads to unnecessary delays and burdens for the parties and the judicial system, with little benefit.

 

Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Scott Alden Sobel, No. 23–0549

Opinion date: November 9, 2023

On appeal from the report from the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission.

Issues:

  • Whether an attorney violated the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct for failing to act with reasonable diligence and failing to appropriately communicate with a client in one matter, and for failing to terminate representation and to expedite litigation in another matter.
  • Whether the Commission’s recommended sanction of a 30-day suspension was appropriate.

The Iowa Supreme Court found that Scott Alan Sobel violated several Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct in the course of two separate matters involving court-appointed representation of criminal defendants. In one matter, the Court held that Sobel failed to review crucial documents and did not communicate adequately with the client prior to a hearing. In the other matter, the Court held that Sobel failed to properly manage and expedite litigation, leading to the dismissal of the case. The Commission recommended a thirty-day suspension of Sobel’s law license, and the Court concluded that the recommended sanction was appropriate. The Court acknowledged Sobel’s previous disciplinary history, including multiple admonishments and reprimands, and his failure to demonstrate remorse. Chief Justice Christensen authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

State of Iowa v. Chase Robert Griffin, No. 22–1234

Opinion date: November 9, 2023

On appeal from the Iowa District Court for Warren County.

Issue:

  • Whether a traffic stop arising from a defendant’s use of a tinted license plate cover was constitutional.

Chase Robert Griffin was pulled over while driving because Iowa State Patrol troopers could not read Griffin’s license plate as a result of the use of a tinted plastic cover. During the subsequent interaction, the troopers smelled alcohol and observed two small children in the vehicle. Griffin was charged with operating while intoxicated and child endangerment, and moved to suppress evidence from the traffic stop as unconstitutional. The Iowa District Court for Warren County granted the motion, and the Iowa Supreme Court reversed. The Court found the stop lawful under Iowa Code sections 321.37 and 321.38, which require license plates to be fully visible. Griffin’s tinted cover obscured plate details, justifying the stop. Justice May authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

State of Iowa v. Jaheim Romaine Cyrus, No. 21–0828

Opinion date: November 17, 2023

On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issue:

  • Whether Cyrus was unlawfully seized in his parked car in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution.

Jaheim Romaine Cyrus was convicted of firearm violations. Cyrus was in a parked car when an officer, noting suspicious behavior, approached with lights and a spotlight. The officer smelled marijuana, searched Cyrus, found a bullet in his pocket and a stolen loaded handgun in his front-seat console, and arrested him. Before the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Cyrus moved to suppress evidence of the search, and the district court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and on further review the Supreme Court affirmed as well. The Court held that Cyrus was not unlawfully seized before the officer detected the odor of marijuana, which provided lawful grounds for the subsequent detention and search. The Court applied an objective “totality-of-the-circumstances” test, determining that the officer’s actions, such as pulling alongside Cyrus’s car, activating rear-facing lights, and using a spotlight, did not constitute a seizure. The Court also declined to modify this objective test to factor in Cyrus’s race or age, emphasizing the need for a consistent standard applicable in a broad range of settings. Justice Waterman authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

State of Iowa v. Donald Melvin Wittenberg, No. 22–0037

Opinion date: November 17, 2023

On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issues:

  • Whether police officers’ use of a spotlight in connection with an interaction with the defendant in his parked vehicle constituted a seizure under the Fourth Amendment or the Iowa Constitution.

Donald Melvin Wittenberg was charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, third offense. Wittenberg moved to suppress evidence from his traffic stop, arguing that he had been seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution when officers partially blocked him in, trained a spotlight on him, and shined flashlights into his car from each side. The Iowa District Court for Polk County denied Wittenberg’s motion to suppress in part, finding that Wittenberg had not been “seized” before the police discovered his intoxication. Wittenberg appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed, finding that under the circumstances a reasonable person would have believed they were free to leave at the outset of Wittenberg’s interaction with the police. The Court declined to adopt a per se rule that use of a spotlight constitutes a seizure. Justice Waterman authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

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February 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in eighteen cases during February 2024. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of Singh v. McDermott, Selden v. DMACC, and Senator Roby Smith et al. v. Iowa District Court for Polk County. The remaining opinions from February are summarized here.

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