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State v. Miller

Supreme Court of Iowa

January 3, 2014

STATE of Iowa, Appellee,
David Lee MILLER, Appellant.

Page 584

Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Vidhya K. Reddy, Assistant State Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Sheryl A. Soich, Assistant Attorney General, Patrick C. Jackson, County Attorney, and Tyron T. Rogers, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

CADY, Chief Justice.

In this appeal, we must decide if the crime of absence from custody is a lesser included offense of the crime of escape. The district court, following case precedent, held the crime of absence from custody was not a lesser included offense, and a jury subsequently found the defendant guilty of the crime of escape. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed the judgment and sentence of the district court. On further review, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and reverse the judgment and sentence of the district court. Under the test we have developed to evaluate proposed lesser included offenses in criminal prosecutions in Iowa, we hold the crime of absence from custody is a lesser included offense of the crime of escape and now overrule State v. Beeson, 569 N.W.2d 107, 112 (Iowa 1997).[1] We remand the case for a new trial.

Page 585

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

David Miller was committed to the residential correctional facility in Burlington in March 2011 following his release on parole from prison where he was serving a sentence for a felony offense. The facility is under the control of the Iowa Department of Corrections and is commonly referred to as a halfway house. Miller was granted work-release status by the Iowa Board of Parole. According to the rules of the halfway house, Miller could not leave the facility without prior permission and was required to check in and out of the facility when he did have permission to leave. The residents of the halfway house checked in and out at a desk located just inside the front door.

On July 18, 2011, Miller was given permission to leave the halfway house to go to the Iowa Workforce Development Center in Burlington to participate in workforce development classes and to use a computer to look for jobs. After he completed the tasks, Miller returned to the halfway house. He arrived through the front door shortly before 5 p.m. and engaged in a conversation with the residential correctional officer at the desk. Miller claimed he told the officer he intended to leave on another scheduled furlough and go to the residence of his girlfriend. After the residential officer told Miller he did not have permission to leave on another furlough, Miller walked out of the halfway house, exclaiming, " screw it," as he left the building.

Miller was apprehended by the Burlington Police Department nineteen days later. The State subsequently filed a trial information against Miller charging him with the crime of escape in violation of Iowa Code section 719.4(1) (2011).[2]

At trial, conflicting testimony was presented on the question of whether Miller had checked back into the halfway house before leaving again. Miller argued he did not complete the process to check back into the facility, so he could not have escaped from the facility. The State produced evidence that Miller had checked back into the facility, but argued an escape occurred even if the check-in process was not completed because Miller nevertheless intentionally left the halfway house without consent.

Miller requested the jury be instructed that the crime of absence from custody in violation of Iowa Code section 719.4(3) was a lesser included offense of escape. The district court denied Miller's request. The jury subsequently found Miller guilty of escape.

Miller appealed. He argued the district court abused its discretion by refusing to submit the crime of absence from custody as a lesser included offense of escape. He also asserted three claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. We transferred the case to the court of appeals. It denied each claim raised by Miller and affirmed the district court judgment and sentence. We granted Miller's request for further review.

II. Standard of Review.

" ‘ We review [a] claim that the trial court should have given the defendant's requested instruction[ ] for an abuse

Page 586

of discretion.’ " State v. Marin, 788 N.W.2d 833, 836 (Iowa 2010) (quoting Summy v. City of Des Moines, 708 N.W.2d 333, 340 (Iowa 2006)). " Error in giving or refusing to give a particular instruction warrants reversal unless the record shows the absence of prejudice." Id. " ‘ When the error is not of constitutional magnitude, the test of prejudice is whether it sufficiently appears that the rights of the complaining party have been injuriously affected or that the party has suffered a miscarriage of justice.’ " Id. (quoting State v. Gansz, 376 N.W.2d 887, 891 (Iowa 1985)). " An abuse of discretion occurs ‘ when the district court exercises its discretion on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable.’ " Rowedder v. Anderson, 814 N.W.2d 585, 589 (Iowa 2012) (quoting Schettler v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 509 N.W.2d 459, 464 (Iowa 1993)). " An erroneous application of the law is clearly untenable." Id. Thus, under our abuse-of-discretion standard, " we will correct an erroneous application of the law." Id.

III. Analysis.

A. Stare Decisis.

Judicial decision making is often guided by the precedent of past court decisions. It is our accepted way and is known as the doctrine of stare decisis. This cardinal principle of common law is a Latin term meaning " to stand by things decided." Black's Law Dictionary 1537 (9th ed.2009). Courts adhere to the holdings of past rulings to imbue the law with continuity and predictability and help maintain the stability essential to society. See Barreca v. Nickolas, 683 N.W.2d 111, 122 (Iowa 2004). Our experience has shown the enduring value of this approach. Yet, our experience has also revealed times when we must overturn our precedent. One such time is when it becomes apparent, in one way or another, that the prior decision was clearly erroneous. McElroy v. State, 703 N.W.2d 385, 394-95 (Iowa 2005). Just as with the character of a person, it is better for courts to correct mistakes when they surface rather than allow them to become ingrained in perpetuity. This response does not disregard the value of precedent but serves the greater good of justice.

If we were to follow our court precedent in this case, the decision would be clear and brief. Sixteen years ago, we held that the crime of absence from custody was not a lesser included offense of escape. Beeson, 569 N.W.2d at 112. However, we now conclude this holding was clearly wrong, primarily because the approach we followed failed to consider and analyze the issue using our familiar legal principles governing lesser included offenses. In following this analytical path now, we can identify our mistake and correct it.

B. Lesser Included Offense Analysis.

We begin our analysis of the legal issue in this case by reviewing our law governing lesser included offenses. From the beginning of our statehood, Iowa law recognized the availability of lesser included offenses. See Orton v. State, 4 Greene 140, 142 (Iowa 1853) (" A defendant may be found guilty of any offense, the commission of which is necessarily included in that with which he is charged in the indictment." ). The doctrine dates at least to sixteenth-century English common law and " allows a trier of fact to convict a defendant of an offense less serious than the one charged." State v. Jeffries, 430 N.W.2d 728, 730 (Iowa 1988); accord Thomas Andrew Green, Verdict According to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury 1200-1800, at 31-52 (1985) [hereinafter Green] (examining the discretion medieval common law juries enjoyed to distinguish between murder and " simple homicide" — a lesser, noncapital offense— and speculating this discretion may date to

Page 587

shortly after the Norman conquest); Janis L. Ettinger, In Search of a Reasoned Approach to the Lesser Included Offense, 50 Brooklyn L.Rev. 191, 195 (1984) (" As early as 1554, an English jury in a murder case was permitted to return a guilty verdict in a form of homicide carrying a less severe sentence than the crime originally charged." ).

Although some jurists have remarked the doctrine was originally developed as a useful tool for the prosecution, see Keeble v. United States, 412 U.S. 205, 208, 93 S.Ct. 1993, 1995, 36 L.Ed.2d 844, 847 (1973), some commentators dispute this view, pointing out the doctrine's early use as a vehicle for mercy by a jury, see Green, at 35-46 (examining several cases in which juries used expansive fact-finding powers to construe facts in a manner to convict a defendant of a lesser, pardonable form of homicide). In any event, the doctrine has evolved to become an important component of procedural fairness and substantial justice for the accused in a criminal case. Cf. Keeble, 412 U.S. at 208, 93 S.Ct. at 1995, 36 L.Ed.2d at 849-50 (determining whether a defendant is entitled to a lesser included offense jury instruction when prosecuted under the Major Crimes Act of 1885, 18 U.S.C. ยงยง 1153, 3242 (1970), and no lesser included offense is enumerated by statute). The Court elucidated this idea in Keeble:

Moreover, it is no answer to petitioner's demand for a jury instruction on a lesser offense to argue that a defendant may be better off without such an instruction. True, if the prosecution has not established beyond a reasonable doubt every element of the offense charged, and if no lesser offense instruction is offered, the jury must, as a theoretical matter, return a verdict of acquittal. But a defendant is entitled to a lesser offense instruction— in this context or any other— precisely because he should not be exposed to the substantial risk that the jury's practice will diverge from theory. Where one of the elements of the offense charged remains in doubt, but the defendant is plainly guilty of some offense, the jury is likely to resolve its doubts in favor of conviction.


The lesser included offense doctrine also implicates either or both the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, at least in capital cases. See Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 637-38, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 2389-90, 65 L.Ed.2d 392, 402-03 (1980). It may raise other constitutional concerns as well. See Jeffries, 430 N.W.2d at 734-35; Christen R. Blair, Constitutional Limitations on the Lesser Included Offense Doctrine, 21 Am.Crim. L.Rev. 445, 446 (1984) [hereinafter Blair].[3]

Aside from the constitutional evolution of the lesser included offense doctrine, the challenges we have faced in this area of the law have primarily involved the development of the test to determine the existence of lesser included offenses for a particular crime. The test we have settled

Page 588

on to determine whether a crime is a lesser included offense of a greater crime generally inquires " whether the greater offense cannot be committed without also committing all elements of the lesser offense." State v. Coffin, 504 N.W.2d 893, 894 (Iowa 1993). This approach is called the " impossibility test" and is " [t]he paramount consideration in determining submissibility of lesser-included offenses." State v. Turecek, 456 N.W.2d 219, 223 (Iowa 1990).

The usual method to ascertain whether it is possible to commit the greater offense without committing the lesser is to strictly compare the elements of the two crimes— something we have called the " strict statutory-elements approach." Jeffries, 430 N.W.2d at 730-31, 736.[4] Under this approach, if the elements of the proffered lesser included offense are found in the putative greater offense (and the greater offense contains at least one additional element), then it will be legally impossible to commit the greater offense without simultaneously committing the lesser offense. Id. at 730-31. We noted in Jeffries, " If the lesser offense contains an element not required for the greater offense, the lesser cannot be included in the greater." Id. at 740.

The elements test is theoretically attractive " because its application only involves comparing the elements of the individual offenses in the abstract. Difficulties, however, in statutory interpretation can arise, which makes application of the rule less than certain in many cases." Blair, 21 Am.Crim. L.Rev. at 447. This case illustrates the difficulty forecasted by the commentator upon whom we relied heavily in Jeffries. As we noted in Jeffries, " While described as the easiest ... approach[ ] to apply, the strict statutory-elements approach has been criticized as inherently inflexible." 430 N.W.2d at 730; accord Blair, 21 Am.Crim. L.Rev. at 447.

We clarified the Jeffries rule in the years following the decision in an effort to improve upon its application to other cases. Notably, we cautioned against applying the elements approach overly restrictively and to the exclusion of the broader impossibility inquiry. State v. McNitt, 451 N.W.2d 824, 824-25 (Iowa 1990). Indeed, in a case decided almost contemporaneously with McNitt, we emphasized that " [t]he comparison of the elements of the greater and lesser crimes, sometimes referred to as the ‘ elements test,’ is only resorted to as an aid in applying the impossibility test and is fully subsumed therein." Turecek, 456 N.W.2d at 223.

In McNitt, the defendant was charged and convicted of sexual abuse in the third degree. 451 N.W.2d at 824. At trial, the district court refused to instruct the jury that the crime of assault with intent to commit sexual abuse was a lesser included offense. Id. That court reasoned that assault with intent to commit sexual abuse was a specific-intent crime, while the greater offense of sexual abuse in the third degree was a general-intent crime. Id. We observed that " [a]pplying the strict statutory ...

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