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State of Iowa v. Paul Justin Opperman

December 12, 2012

STATE OF IOWA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
PAUL JUSTIN OPPERMAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Robert E. Sosalla (motion to dismiss) and Thomas L. Koehler (bench trial), Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Vogel, P.J.

A defendant appeals his conviction for arson in the second degree. AFFIRMED.

Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Danilson and Mullins, JJ.

The defendant, Paul Justin Opperman, appeals the judgment and sentence entered following a trial on the minutes of testimony and a verdict of guilty on the charge of arson in the second degree, a class C felony, in violation of Iowa Code sections 712.1 and 712.3 (2011). He argues that Iowa Code section 712.1(2) is an unconstitutional, strict liability statute. The State responds by claiming error was not preserved, and in the alternative, the statute is constitutionally sound.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings

On April 11, 2011, a fire broke out in a Hiawatha apartment. First responders, including firefighters and police officers, noted the presence of items that might indicate the apartment was used to manufacture methamphetamine. Opperman had been present in the apartment when the fire started. A search warrant was obtained and significant methamphetamine manufacturing supplies were found.

Opperman was charged on May 4, 2011, with arson in the first degree, specifically that he "cause[d] a fire in an apartment building . . . in which the presence of others could be anticipated, while attempting to manufacture methamphetamine." On August 11, Opperman filed a motion to dismiss, arguing Iowa Code section 712.1(2) is an unconstitutional, strict liability statute. The district court denied the motion on October 17. On November 2, the State filed an amended and substituted trial information charging Opperman with arson in the second degree rather than first degree as originally charged. On that same day, a stipulated trial on the minutes of testimony was held, and the district court found Opperman guilty of arson in the second degree. He was sentenced to a term of imprisonment not to exceed ten years. Opperman now appeals reasserting that section 712.1(2) is unconstitutional.

II. Issue Preservation

The State briefly mentions that this issue has not been preserved for our review because Opperman did not renew his motion to dismiss after the amended and substituted trial information was filed. For an issue to be preserved the objectives of the error-preservation rules must be accomplished: challenges must be raised at the earliest possible point, opposing counsel must have notice and the opportunity to be heard, and the district court must have the opportunity to consider and pronounce a ruling on the issue. State v. Mann, 602 N.W.2d 785, 790 (Iowa 1999) (holding that even when the exact technicalities of error preservation do not occur, the objectives of error preservation can be met and the appellate court can find error was adequately preserved).

In this case, when the trial information was amended seven minutes before the commencement of the bench trial, the State lessened the charge from first-degree arson to second-degree arson. The State offers no explanation as to why Opperman's strict liability challenge would be any different with regard to the reduced charge when the State was relying on the same definition of arson, Iowa Code section 712.1(2), in both its original and amended trial informations. Applying the objectives of our error-preservation rules, we find the issue was properly preserved.

III. Strict Liability

Opperman argues Iowa Code section 712.1(2) is an unconstitutional, strict liability criminal statute, in violation of both the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, section 9 of the Iowa Constitution.*fn1 Our review of this constitutional challenge is de novo. State v. Osmundson, 546 N.W.2d 907, 909 (Iowa 1996). Statutes are given a strong presumption of constitutionality. State v. Ryan, 501 N.W.2d 516, 517 (Iowa 1993). This presumption places a heavy burden on the one challenging the constitutionality of a statute. State v. Mehner, 480 N.W.2d 872, 878 (Iowa 1992).

It is a bedrock principle of the criminal justice system that, almost without exception, one is required to have some level of culpability before being subjected to criminal sanctions. State v. Casey's Gen. Stores, Inc., 587 N.W.2d 599, 601 (Iowa 1998). The question, therefore, is whether "arson" under Iowa Code section 712.1(2) requires criminal intent.*fn2

Whether criminal intent or guilty knowledge is an essential element of a statutory offense may be "determined as a matter of construction from the language of the act, in connection with its manifest purpose and design." State v. Conner, 292 N.W.2d 682, 685 (Iowa 1980). Applying this rule, our supreme court has frequently implied a criminal intent element, although none appeared on the face of the statute. Id. When the language of the act gives no indication the legislature intended to remove the criminal intent element and create a strict liability offense, criminal intent is inferred, and the act passes muster. State ...


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