Iowa Supreme Court overturns Charles City man’s sentence for child sex crimes; orders a district court redo
By Bob Steenson, [email protected]
The Iowa Supreme Court has overturned the prison sentence of a Charles City man who pleaded guilty to committing sexual acts with two young girls, saying the county attorney was not forceful enough in advocating to the judge for the terms of a plea agreement.
The state high court overturned an earlier decision by the Iowa Court of Appeals and ordered the case sent back to Floyd County District Court for resentencing by a different judge. It is possible if the new judge follows the sentencing recommendation that the man would be released from prison and put on probation.
Shane Michael Davis, now age 42, was arrested and charged in October 2019 with committing lascivious acts with a child, a Class C felony, and committing an indecent act with a child, an aggravated misdemeanor.
In November 2019, Davis pleaded guilty in an Alford plea, in return for the Class C felony being reduced to a Class D felony, and the Floyd County Attorney’s Office agreeing to recommend that the judge follow the sentencing recommendation of a presentence investigation (PSI) report.
The PSI recommended that Davis be sentenced to up to five years in prison on the lascivious acts charge, and up to two years in prison on the indecent act charge, that the sentences be served consecutively, but that the prison terms be suspended.
It also recommended five years of supervised probation, placement at a residential facility, no-contact orders, use of an electronic monitoring tracking device, placement on the sexual offender registry and a 10-year special sentence, which means he would be under the supervision of the Iowa Department of Corrections for 10 years.
However, at the sentencing, District Court Judge DeDra Schroeder sentenced Davis to up to five years in prison on the felony count, up to two years in prison on the misdemeanor count, ordered that they be served consecutively, but did not suspend those sentences, meaning Davis was sentenced to a total of up to seven years in prison.
Judges do not have to follow the recommendations of a plea agreement, and can apply any sentence available for the crimes to which the defendant pleaded guilty.
Davis appealed the sentence, but the Iowa Court of Appeals dismissed that appeal in August last year, ruling that under Iowa Code there is no right to appeal from a conviction where the defendant pleaded guilty, unless the defendant establishes good cause, and he had not established good cause.
Davis’ attorney filed an application for further review with the Iowa Supreme Court, which agreed last October to reconsider the case.
On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its ruling, affirming Davis’ guilt, but overturning the Court of Appeals decision that there was no right to appeal.
The defendant “made clear” that he was appealing sentencing errors, not the guilty plea, said the Iowa Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Thomas Waterman.
“This is a case about the prosecutor’s duty to recommend a sentence pursuant to a plea agreement,” Waterman wrote, “Our obligation as a court is to uphold and enforce the parties’ plea agreement. The prosecutor breached the plea agreement by failing to recommend a suspended sentence in the manner required by our precedent.”
During the sentencing hearing, Floyd County Attorney Rachel Ginbey read four victim impact statements that had been written by the victims and their parents, all advocating that Davis be sent to prison and the parents asking the judge to sentence him to the maximum allowable time.
“The prosecutor spent about fifteen minutes reading these statements; Davis’s counsel made no objection,” the Supreme Court opinion says.
“When the district court next asked for the State’s recommendation on sentencing, the prosecutor responded: ‘Your Honor, in this case the plea agreement was that the State would follow the recommendation made by the presentence investigation, so the State would join in those recommendations being made.’
“The prosecutor never specifically said the State recommended suspended sentences, and she made no further statement in support of that recommendation,” Waterman wrote.
He also noted that the state’s argument in the appeal, handled by the Iowa Attorney General’s office, as is usual, was that the appeal should be dismissed because it didn’t qualify under required criteria for appeals.
“Most importantly, the State in this appeal makes no argument that the prosecutor honored the parties’ plea agreement,” Waterman wrote.
“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Waterman wrote, quoting from previous case law. “While proper use of plea agreements is essential to the efficient administration of justice, improper use of the agreements threatens the liberty of the criminally accused as well as ‘the honor of the government’ and ‘public confidence in the fair administration of justice.’”
The question to be decided is whether the county attorney acted contrary to the purpose of the plea agreement and the justified expectations of the defendant, the opinion said.
“The prosecutor should have followed her reading of those statements by specifically recommending suspended sentences and giving some reason in support of that recommendation. Instead she simply paid cryptic lip service to the plea agreement to abide by the PSI report’s recommendation, without saying aloud the State supported suspended sentences,” the opinion said.
Saying that plea agreements are akin to contracts between the prosecutor and the defendant, Waterman wrote, “If the prosecutor believed Davis deserved incarceration, she should not have committed to recommending suspended sentences. Buyer’s remorse does not excuse breaking a contract.”
“The remedy for the State’s breach is ‘resentencing by a different judge, with the prosecutor obligated to honor the plea agreement and sentencing recommendation,’” the opinion said, again quoting previous court rulings.
In a dissent to part of the majority court’s ruling, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christiansen wrote, “Despite the victims’ calls for a harsher sentence, the prosecutor herself never advocated for a harsher sentence than the PSI report’s recommended sentence, acting in compliance with the plea agreement.”
Christiansen wrote, “I cannot agree with the majority’s decision … to disregard the rights of victims and turn prosecutors into cheerleaders for the defense when they recommend a sentence pursuant to a plea agreement.
“The prosecutor did not – as the majority misrepresents – pay ‘cryptic lip service’ to the plea agreement after reading the victims’ statements. To the contrary, immediately after the prosecutor finished the last victim statement …, the court asked for the State’s recommendation. The prosecutor’s next words were: ‘Thank you, Your Honor. Your Honor, in this case the plea agreement was that the State would follow the recommendation made by the presentence investigation, so the State would join in those recommendations being made.’
“It is highly unlikely the State would ‘join’ the recommendations of the PSI report if the State did not believe those recommendations were ‘worthy of acceptance.’” Christensen wrote.