The community caretaker exception to search and seizure rules.

11 May

In STATE OF IOWA vs. JEFFREY DANA KURTH Ap No. 11-0525, The court held that the community caretaker exception to the normal search and seizure rules under the US and Iowa Constitutions does not permit a police office to seize a vehicle and its occupants solely because the officer observed the vehicle run over a sign that had been knocked over by another vehicle, sustaining minor damage but remaining operable.


When do a Police Officer’s suggestions of leniency as a result of confessing make a confession involuntary?

10 Apr

In short, when the officer suggests “the county attorney is more likely to work with [the defendant] if he cooperates and implicitly threaten[s] that silence will keep him from his children for “a long time.” State v. Polk IA Ap. No. 10-0335 at p. 11. According to the Iowa Supreme Court’s April 6th decision,  this goes beyond the limitation that a confession is not voluntary when a defendant is influenced to make it by any threat or promise. Id.

Supreme Court of Iowa weighs in on Eighth Amendment with two cases in one week.

10 Apr

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” US Constitution, Eight Amendment

“Excessive bail shall not be required; excessive fines shall not be imposed, and cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted.” Article 1, section 17, Iowa Constitution

So, what, exactly is cruel and unusual punishment? It is still not clear, but after this week, we know a little be more about what is NOT cruel and unusual punishment, at least in the state of Iowa, and how to analyze the question, should it arise. In the past week, the Iowa Supreme Court released one decision that decided whether a specific punishment, in specific circumstances, was or was not cruel and unusual, and another that will allow someone make such a challenge almost three decades after his conviction. In the first case, State v. Oliver, Ap. No. 10-1751, the court nicely sets out the state of the law with respect to challenges to specific sentences on the grounds of whether they are cruel and/or unusual.  Under the recent US supreme court case  Graham vs. Florida,  A defendant challenging a sentence on cruel and unusual punishment grounds must attack it “under a“categorical” approach or make a “gross proportionality challenge to [the]particular defendant’s sentence.”” State v. Oliver, Ap. No. 10-1751, quoting Graham vs. Florida, ___ U.S. at ___, 130 S. Ct. at 2022, 176 L. Ed. 2d at 837. The categorical approach is straight forward: is the statutorily permitted sentence, irrespective of the actual facts of the instant case, cruel and unusual punishment for the statute violated. The gross proportionality approach, on the other hand, is a three factor test as follows.  Step one is to “compare the severity of the punishment to the gravity of the crime to determine if the sentence leads to an inference of gross disproportionality. State v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d at 873. If this threshold step is satisfied, steps two and three require the court to engage in an 1) intrajurisdictional and 2)interjurisdictional analysis to determine whether the sentence is in fact grossly disproportionate and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment. State v. Oliver, Ap. No. 10-1751, referencing Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 22, 30, 123 S. Ct. 1179, 1186, 1190, 155 L. Ed. 2d 108, 118, 123 (2003); and Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 1005, 111 S. Ct. 2680, 2707, 115 L. Ed. 2d 836, 871 (1991) In laymans terms, first the court compares the sentence to what the defendant did to decide whether it seems “grossly disproportional”, and if it does, they then compare it to other sentences for similar crimes in the same jurisdiction and other jurisdictions. In Oliver, a 33 year old man was convicted of 3rd degree sexual abuse for a second time, for doing essentially what is commonly referred to a statutory rape, but with a disturbingly young (13 year old) victim. The first girl of which he obtained felonious unlawful carnal knowledge was 14, and at the time he was only in his twenties. For this, Iowa law provided a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.  Mr. Oliver argued that this constituted cruel and unusual punishment under both the Iowa and US constitutions. The Iowa Supreme court held that it did constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the categorical test because 1)Many states have mandatory life sentences for 2nd time sex offenders, they have legitimate reasons for doing so, and it does not categorically seem cruel and unusual to sentence repeat sex offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Then, under the gross proportionality test, the court again found no constitutional problem. The court noted that under Graham and the Iowa case Bruegger a court should look at the individual facts of the case in step one of the above described three part gross proportionality test. The court then used general criminal sentencing principles to decide that for a 33 year old man who was previously convicted of sexual abuse of a minor, being sentenced to life in prison without parole for having sex with a thirteen year old girl was not grossly disproportionate. In short, even if seemingly non violent, having sex with apparently willing young teens twice can cost you your freedom for the rest of your life in without violating the constitution(s). And that brings us to our second case, State v. Ragland, Ap. No. 10-1770. While I will not go to far in depth into this case, the court ruled that even though they had already decided the issue in Mr. Ragland’s case the other way, they had decided in the Bruegger (see above) that a cruel and unusual punishment challenge to a sentence was a challenge to an illegal sentence, meaning that the normal 3 year statute of limitations that applies to post-conviction actions would not apply, and that a defendant could make an individualized challenge to their sentence given the facts of their crime even after those three years had expired. The court thus allowed Mr. Ragland to go back to the trial court and argue that a sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for a juvenile convicted of felony murder constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  I suspect that we may soon learn the answer to the question posed by Mr. Ragland’s case as well.