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State v. Romer

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 7, 2013

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.
BRENT MICHAEL ROMER, Appellant.

On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Adams County, David L. Christensen, Judge.

Defendant seeks further review of court of appeals decision which affirmed his convictions for sexual exploitation of a minor and sexual exploitation by a school employee.

Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Shellie L. Knipfer, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Benjamin M. Parrott and Denise A. Timmins, Assistant Attorneys General, and Jeffrey B. Millhollin, County Attorney, for appellee.

ZAGER, Justice.

This case requires us to interpret the statutory language prohibiting sexual exploitation by a school employee under Iowa Code sections 709.15(3)(a) and (b). Romer appeals his conviction on five counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and three counts of sexual exploitation by a school employee. Romer argues he did not violate Iowa Code section 709.15(3) because, though he was a teacher and the minors were students, no direct teacher–student relationship existed. He further argues he could not have violated Iowa Code section 709.15(3), as delineated in counts VII and VIII, because the State did not produce evidence that he physically touched the students identified in those two counts. Finally, he argues the district court abused its discretion in not severing the eight counts of the trial information into five different trials. The court of appeals rejected these arguments and affirmed his convictions. We granted further review. Upon our review, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals and the judgment of the district court.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History.

Viewing the trial evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's guilty verdicts, the jury could have found the following facts. Brent Michael Romer was a licensed teacher in the state of Iowa. He taught elementary school for Cumberland and Massena Community Schools, beginning as a substitute teacher in October 2000. He was subsequently hired as a full-time teacher, which employment continued from June 2004 through July 2008. He also taught as a substitute teacher in the Corning Community School District prior to his full-time position with Cumberland and Massena. Romer lived in nearby Corning. Romer was charged with five counts of sexual exploitation of a minor in violation of Iowa Code section 728.12(1) and three counts of sexual exploitation by a school employee in violation of Iowa Code sections 709.15(3)(a) and (b), and 709.15(5)(a). These charges stem from three separate and distinct events. All of the charges involved students who attended school in the Corning Community School District. None of the students involved with Romer were in an existing teacher–student relationship at the time that any of the events charged in the trial information occurred.

The first event involved an admitted sexual relationship with R.A. R.A. initially met Romer when Romer was a substitute teacher for her elementary school class. Romer reinitiated contact with R.A. in 2005 when she was fifteen years old. This contact was initiated through the social networking website MySpace. Shortly after R.A. turned sixteen, a sexual relationship commenced. This sexual relationship lasted until R.A. was eighteen, at which time she broke off the relationship. R.A. and Romer engaged in sexual contact and sexual intercourse multiple times during this relationship.

The second event occurred in November 2007. Fifteen-year-old L.A. was babysitting at Romer's house, and fourteen-year-old K.G. visited L.A. while she was babysitting. As in the case of R.A., K.G. first met Romer when he was her substitute teacher in her elementary school class. During this visit, L.A. exchanged text messages with Romer. In these text messages, Romer stated there was a camera available and suggested the two girls take nude photographs of each other. While the girls took some photographs of themselves, there is no evidence that these photographs were inappropriate. However, when Romer returned home, he began taking photographs of both of the girls in various sexual poses he suggested. These photographs depict L.A. nude from the waist up and K.G. touching L.A.'s breasts with her hands and mouth.

The third event occurred on July 4, 2008. N.S., a fifteen-year-old female, and L.A. attended a party at Romer's house where alcohol was being consumed. Z.G., a seventeen-year-old male, also attended. The three minors became intoxicated at the party, and Romer took pictures of them in various sexually explicit poses. The pictures depict the female minors kissing, taking off their clothing, and embracing. Most of the pictures show L.A. and N.S. naked from the waist up and wearing only their underwear. One of the pictures shows Z.G. touching L.A.'s genital area. Another adult male is also visible in some of the pictures and in one photograph is seen touching N.S.'s breast.

After R.A.'s mother discovered the sexual relationship between R.A. and Romer, she reported the sexual relationship to Romer's school officials. Romer resigned his teaching position with the Cumberland and Massena Community Schools on June 17, 2008, which resignation was accepted by the school board on July 21, 2008. In November 2009, R.A. reported her relationship with Romer to the police, and an investigation commenced. In March 2010, the State charged Romer with five counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and three counts of sexual exploitation by a school employee.

On April 14, 2010, Romer filed a motion to bifurcate the multiple offenses into separate trials. After a hearing, the district court overruled the motion on the basis that the alleged acts, if proven, were part of a common scheme or plan and should therefore be tried together. Romer renewed his objection to a joint trial of the multiple offenses shortly before trial in his third motion in limine. The district court denied this motion in limine.

On November 4, 2010, Romer also filed a motion to adjudicate law points, arguing that the charges of sexual exploitation by a school employee mischaracterized the intent of Iowa Code section 709.15 because Romer did not have a direct teacher–student relationship with the students he was charged with exploiting. The district court denied the motion, finding a direct teacher–student relationship was not required. Romer renewed his objection shortly before trial by filing a motion in limine. The district court denied this motion as well.

Jury trial commenced on December 14, 2010. At the close of all of the evidence, Romer moved for a directed verdict on counts VII and VIII of the amended trial information involving K.G. and L.A. Specifically, Romer argued the State had not met its burden with respect to proving that Romer had "engaged in any sort of sexual conduct or any prohibited sexual conduct" with either K.G. or L.A. to support the offense of sexual exploitation by a school employee. The district court denied this motion. The jury returned its verdicts of guilty to all eight counts of the amended trial information on December 17, 2010. Romer appealed, arguing the district court committed reversible error in three ways: (1) in its rulings on the applicability of sexual exploitation by a school employee, (2) in its ruling that Romer's actions in directing students to pose in sexually explicit positions constituted sexual exploitation, and (3) in its refusal to sever the various counts of the trial information.

We transferred the case to the court of appeals which affirmed the rulings of the district court and the convictions. We granted Romer's application for further review.

II. Standard of Review.

To the extent Romer's appeal involves questions of statutory interpretation, we review for correction of errors of law. In re Det. of Johnson, 805 N.W.2d 750, 753 (Iowa 2011). Romer also claims the State did not produce sufficient evidence to convict him of several of the counts for which he was convicted.

Sufficiency of evidence claims are reviewed for a correction of errors at law. In reviewing challenges to the sufficiency of evidence supporting a guilty verdict, courts consider all of the record evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the State, including all reasonable inferences that may be fairly drawn from the evidence. We will uphold a verdict if substantial record evidence supports it.

State v. Sanford, 814 N.W.2d 611, 615 (Iowa 2012) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

Finally, we review a district court's "refusal to sever multiple charges against a single defendant for abuse of discretion." State v. Elston, 735 N.W.2d 196, 198 (Iowa 2007).

III. Discussion and Analysis.

Romer appeals on three issues. First, he argues he cannot be convicted of a violation of Iowa Code section 709.15(3), prohibiting sexual exploitation by a school employee, because there was not an existing teacher–student relationship between him and any of the minors whom he was convicted of exploiting. Second, he argues he cannot be convicted of sexual exploitation because the behavior he engaged in did not constitute sexual conduct with two of the minors, as defined in sections 709.15(3)(b) or 702.17.[1] Finally, Romer argues his charges should have been severed into multiple trials, and the district court's refusal to do so resulted in unfair prejudice. We address each of these issues in turn.

A. Teacher–Student Relationship.

Romer argues he cannot be convicted of a violation of Iowa Code section 709.15(3), prohibiting sexual exploitation by a school employee, because there was not a contemporaneous teacher–student relationship between him and any of the minors whom he was convicted of exploiting. Section 709.15(3) provides:

3. Sexual exploitation by a school employee occurs when any of the following are found:
a. A pattern or practice or scheme of conduct to engage in any of the conduct described in paragraph "b".
b. Any sexual conduct with a student for the purpose of arousing or satisfying the sexual desires of the school employee or the student. Sexual conduct includes but is not limited to the following: kissing; touching of the clothed or unclothed inner thigh, breast, groin, buttock, anus, pubes, or genitals; or a sex act as defined in section 702.17.
Sexual exploitation by a school employee does not include touching that is necessary in the performance of the school employee's duties while ...

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