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State v. Nicoletto

Supreme Court of Iowa

April 11, 2014

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.
PATRICK RYAN NICOLETTO, Appellant

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Davis County, Myron L. Gookin, Judge. A criminal defendant appeals his conviction for sexual exploitation by a school employee in violation of Iowa Code section 709.15 .

John K. Rigg, Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Thomas S. Tauber, until withdrawal, then Sheryl A. Soich, Assistant Attorneys General, Rick L. Lynch, County Attorney, for appellee.

APPEL, Justice. All justices concur except Waterman and Mansfield, JJ., who dissent.

OPINION

Page 422

APPEL, Justice.

A jury convicted the defendant, a worker at a local pipe manufacturer who coached high school basketball pursuant to a coaching authorization but was not a licensed teacher, of sexual exploitation by a school employee in violation of Iowa Code section 709.15(3)( a ) and (5)( a ) (2009). The sexual exploitation statute defines " school employee" as " a practitioner as defined in section 272.1." Iowa Code § 709.15(1)( f ). Section 272.1 defines " practitioner" as " an administrator, teacher, or other licensed professional, including an individual who holds a statement of professional recognition, who provides educational assistance to students." Id. § 272.1(7). The State prosecuted the defendant solely under the theory that he fell into the category of " other licensed professional" because he held a coaching authorization issued pursuant to Iowa Code section 272.31. Although a coach who holds a teaching or other professional license is clearly subject to the statute, a mere holder of a coaching authorization without a professional license within the meaning of section 272.1(7) does not fall under the sexual exploitation statute. Accordingly, we reverse the conviction and remand the case to the district court with instructions to dismiss the case.

I. Background Facts and Prior Proceedings.

A reasonable jury could have found the following facts. Patrick Nicoletto worked as a night employee at a local pipe manufacturer. He also entered into contracts with the Davis County Community School District to be an assistant high school girls' basketball coach during the 2007 to 2008 and 2008 to 2009 school years. The first contract, dated August 29, 2007, stated Nicoletto's term as coach would commence November 5 of that year and include " 90 days of service and such other time as may be assigned to coach post-season tournaments or other related duties." The second contract, dated March 25, 2008, contained the same language, except it stated Nicoletto's coaching term would commence November 4 of that year. Under the contracts, the State paid Nicoletto $1940.40 per year. As a condition of payment for his coaching services, Nicoletto was contractually required to obtain either a teaching certificate with a coaching endorsement or a coaching authorization. Because he is not a teacher, Nicoletto obtained a coaching authorization. In addition to basketball, Nicoletto coached high school baseball for Davis County.

Page 423

The Davis County high school basketball season generally lasts from November through the second week in February. During his first season, Nicoletto coached the freshman girls' basketball team and assisted with the varsity team. At some point during that season, S.L., a sixteen-year-old junior on the varsity team, began an exchange of text messages with Nicoletto. Though the messages were originally basketball related, they soon turned flirty and sexual in nature.

Sometime during 2008, Nicoletto invited S.L. to his house. While at first Nicoletto and S.L. engaged in physical intimacy short of sexual intercourse, they eventually engaged in sexual intercourse every week or two at Nicoletto's home.

Nicoletto and S.L. took steps to conceal their relationship. For instance, S.L. would park her vehicle behind Nicoletto's house or park at a nearby park and wait for Nicoletto to pick her up. S.L. often informed her parents she was staying at the homes of various friends. Other times, S.L. would spend the night at a motel owned by her aunt and uncle and Nicoletto would pick her up. The relationship continued throughout the summer, at times during which S.L. would participate in organized basketball scrimmages against other high schools. Nicoletto was present at these scrimmages.

When S.L.'s senior year began in the fall, her school schedule did not require her to be at school until 10:00 a.m. In the mornings, S.L. would go to Nicoletto's house to meet him after he arrived home from work. At some point near the beginning of the fall semester, the school principal became concerned about the possible relationship between Nicoletto and S.L. and telephoned Nicoletto to ask about it. Several weeks later, the principal called S.L. into his office to discuss the matter. S.L. denied existence of the relationship. Nicoletto ended the relationship with S.L. in mid-September.

When the new basketball season started, S.L. and Nicoletto discussed how to keep their relationship from the rest of the team. By January or February 2009, S.L. learned Nicoletto was experiencing relationship difficulties with another woman whom he was dating at the time. Nicoletto had also moved by this time, and when S.L. went to see his new house, they engaged in intimacy, which may have included intercourse, once more.

The State charged Nicoletto with sexual exploitation by a school employee in violation of Iowa Code section 709.15(3)( a ) and (5)( a ). A jury found Nicoletto guilty. The district court sentenced him to five years imprisonment plus a ten-year special sentence under Iowa Code section 903B.2. Nicoletto timely filed an appeal, which this court retained.

II. Issues.

On appeal, Nicoletto raises a number of challenges. Among other things, Nicoletto argues that because he was not a school employee as that term is used under Iowa Code section 709.15(3)( a ), he was not subject to criminal prosecution under this statute. Because the question of whether Nicoletto was subject to prosecution under section 709.15(3)( a ) is dispositive, we need not reach the other issues.

III. Scope of Review.

We review issues of statutory interpretation and application for correction of errors at law. E.g., State v. Romer, 832 N.W.2d 169, 174 (Iowa 2013); State v. Gonzalez, 718 N.W.2d 304, 307 (Iowa 2006); State v. McCoy, 618 N.W.2d 324, 325 (Iowa 2000).

Page 424

IV. Discussion.

A. Statutory Framework.

Section 709.15(3)( a ) prohibits " [s]exual exploitation by a school employee." " Sexual exploitation" occurs when a school employee engages in " [a]ny sexual conduct with a student for the purpose of arousing or satisfying the sexual desires of the school employee or the student." Iowa Code § 709.15(3)( b ).

The sexual exploitation statute does not contain a definition of " school employee." Instead, the sexual exploitation statute provides that " 'school employee' means a practitioner as defined in section 272.1." Id. § 709.15(1)( f ) (emphasis omitted). Accordingly, to understand who is a school employee subject to the criminal prohibitions of the sexual exploitation statute, we must refer to another chapter of the Code.

Iowa Code chapter 272 pertains to the board of educational examiners. Section 272.1, which is incorporated into the criminal statute under which Nicoletto was prosecuted, defines " practitioner" as " an administrator, teacher, or other licensed professional, including an individual who holds a statement of professional recognition, who provides educational assistance to students." Id. § 272.1(7).

The State concedes Nicoletto was not an administrator, teacher, or holder of a statement of professional recognition. It claims, however, Nicoletto was an " other licensed professional" under section 272.1(7). Section 272.1 does not define " other licensed professional," but it does define " license" :

" License " means the authority that is given to allow a person to legally serve as a practitioner, a school, an institution, or a course of study to legally offer professional development programs, other than those programs offered by practitioner preparation schools, institutions, courses of study, or area education agencies. A license is the exclusive authority to perform these functions.

Id. § 272.1(5).

Section 272.2 creates the board of examiners and grants it exclusive authority to license practitioners and establish licensing criteria. Id. § 272.2(1). Section 272.7 relates to the validity of the licenses. Id. § 272.7. Section 272.31 separately sets forth the requirements to obtain a coaching authorization. Id. § 272.31(1).[1]

B. Positions of the Parties.

1. The State.

The State centers its claim that Nicoletto is a licensed professional on definitions of " license" and " professional." The State points to the definition of " license" in Iowa Code section 272.1(5) (2009) as well as Iowa Code section 272.7, which provides in part that " [a] person employed as a practitioner shall hold a valid license with an endorsement for the type of service for which the person is employed." Under these two provisions, the State argues, a coaching authorization functions as a license because a person who is not a teacher ...


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