Thursday, February 24, 2005

More Legal Blogging

The new Iowa Court of Appeals decisions are posted here. Some things that caught my attention:


Improper evidence at the sentencing hearing on a neglect of dependent person charge against a daycare provider.

The defendant pled guilty to a charge of neglect of a dependent person, in exchange for the dismissal of a related charge of child endangerment. As a factual basis for the plea, the defendant admitted she was in custody of the injured three and one-half month-old child child, and stated that “[o]n that day I recklessly exposed or abandoned [the child] to a danger or hazard against which he could not reasonably be expected to protect himself.” She conceded she had “willfully disregarded” the child’s safety by leaving him unattended for several minutes with a four-year-old child who was also in her care, implying that the older child allegedly inflicted the injury to the infant. The Court reviewed the pre-sentence investigation report accompanying medical evidence describing the child’s injury, and concluded “[t]here is certainly strong medical evidence that has been presented…to indicate that these injuries the child had are inconsistent with the defendant’s version of what happened that day.” The Court then noted that the PSI report included information that defendant “voluntarily took a polygraph examination that she failed,” suggesting “that she’s not telling us the entire truth in the things that she admits.” The PSI recommended probation. The Court noted her lack of prior criminal record, but concluded “[g]ross neglect of children in your care when you are a licensed child care provider is one of those offenses that . . . strongly mitigates against probation for the individual” and sentenced her to the maximum prison term allowable.

The defendant challenged the sentence on three grounds: 1) that the district court focused on a single factor, the fact that she was a licensed child care provider, to the exclusion of all others, in imposing the sentence; 2) that the district court relied on the medical evidence included in the PSI report and the statements of the prosecuting attorney and the infant’s parents to conclude that she was guilty of the dismissed charge, and improperly based her sentence for neglect of a dependent person on such impermissible factors; and 3) that the district court impermissibly considered a polygraph test taken by the defendant in imposing the sentence.

Regarding the first issue, the Court found that the district court had arrived at its sentencing decision after considering the available sentencing options in light of (1) Shaneyfelt’s suitability for rehabilitation, (2) the probable deterrent effect, (3) the message the sentence would send to the community, (4) the nature of the offense and the harm to the victim, and (5) the mitigating factors urged by Shaneyfelt.

On the second issue, the Court found that any perceived inconsistency between the medical evidence in the sentencing record and Shaneyfelt’s version of the circumstances surrounding the infant’s injury were relevant to the defendant’s credibility and propensity for rehabilitation, and that the Court could not extrapolate from the district court’s comments about the defendant’s truthfulness a conclusion that she was guilty of inflicting the injury on the child.

However, on the last issue the Court held that evidence of a failed, unstipulated polygraph examination may not be considered to enhance the defendant’s sentence, and remanded the case back to the district court for a new sentencing hearing. It reserved the issue of whether a sentencing court may rely upon polygraph evidence favorable to the defendant as a mitigating factor. This was a matter of first impression in Iowa.


In this case, the defendant was being sentenced for a second offense operating while intoxicated. The district court sentenced him to two years of incarceration, all of which except for thirty days was suspended, and placed him on probation for two years. Then things got interesting:
"The presentence investigation (PSI) report revealed Winters had been previously convicted of third-degree sexual abuse in 1993 and failure to register as a sex offender in 1998. Although Winters had previously completed sex offender treatment programs, the PSI report recommended Winters be placed in a sex offender aftercare program. This recommendation was based in part on the results of Winters’s psychological evaluation. As part of this evaluation, Winters was rated on two different psychosexual assessments designed to estimate the probability of sexual environment recidivism. Winters’s risk category was assessed as “medium-high” on the Static 99 assessment and “low” on the Sexual Offender Need Assessment Rating (SONAR) evaluation.[1] Based on this recommendation, the district court ordered him to submit to DNA profiling and complete sex offender treatment as conditions of his probation."

The defendant challenged these terms of probation as unrelated to the underlying defense. The Court found that under Iowa Code § 907.6, probationers are subject to any reasonable conditions the court may impose to “promote rehabilitation of the defendant or protection of the community. As it was in the best interest of the community to require a previously convicted sex offender to enroll in a sexual offender treatment program, and because the information contained in the PSI report reasonably supported the district court's finding the condition served the two goals of probation—rehabilitation of the defendant and protection of the community, the Court upheld that portion of the sentence.

The Court noted that Iowa Code § 13.10 requires mandatory DNA when a defendant is convicted of a qualifying offense, but § 901.5(8A)(b) permits a court to order a defendant to submit a physical specimen for DNA profiling in all other cases “if appropriate.” The Court then noted that the deterrent effect of DNA profiling would be insignificant for the instant crime of OWI second offense, that it had been over twelve years since the defendant was convicted of third-degree sexual abuse, and that any potential risk to reoffend would be sufficiently allayed by requiring him to enroll in a sex offender aftercare program as a condition of his probation. Therefore, the Court overturned that part of the sentence.


This case analyzed whether a defendant should be given the opportunity to withdraw his plea once it became apparent that the court did not intend to adopt the sentencing recommendations in the written plea agreement. This question comes up quite often, as you might imagine. As a practical matter, when I was doing prosecution I had always considered it part of my duty to warn defendants/defense counsel if the judge had a known propensity to go "off the board" on plea deals. If it happened unexpectedly and not to the defendant's benefit, I didn't object to the defendant's motion to withdraw the plea, then the negotiations would start over in light of the new evidence. It was just a standard of good faith and fair dealing that I expected from myself. But apparently in this case, whoever represented the State decided to resist the withdrawal, despite explicit language in the plea agreement stating that the
"guilty plea is conditioned upon the Court’s concurrence with the plea agreement as stated herein. The judge will inform me whether the Court accepts the agreement or rejects it before accepting my guilty plea. I understand that if the court rejects the agreement (sic) I have the right to persist in my not guilty plea."
The only argument presented by the State was that it never signed the guilty plea, and that it never agreed to make the deal contingent upon acceptance by the Court under Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.10(4, which states:
"If, at the time the plea of guilty is tendered, the court refuses to be bound by or rejects the plea agreement, the court shall inform the parties of this fact, afford the defendant the opportunity to then withdraw defendant's plea, and advise the defendant that if persistence in a guilty plea continues the disposition of the case may be less favorable to the defendant then that contemplated by the plea agreement."
However, as the Court noted, the State's sentencing recommendations echoed the plea precisely, and the language of the contingency clause in the plea agreement was basically parroting IRCP 2.10. It rejected the State's arguments with little comment and overturned the plea. Unless there's something I'm missing, that's exactly what should have been done.

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