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State v. Propps

Supreme Court of Iowa

May 25, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

         Certiorari to the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Richard G. Blane II, Judge.

         A juvenile challenges his sentence as unconstitutional under the Iowa Constitution.

          Amy Pellegrin (until withdrawal) and Gregory T. Racette of Hopkins & Huebner, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis Sloven, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          ZAGER, JUSTICE.

         A juvenile was sentenced to four consecutive, indeterminate sentences of ten years in prison for four counts of willful injury causing serious injury. No mandatory minimum sentence was imposed. However, because the crime of willful injury causing serious injury is a forcible felony, the sentencing judge was unable to consider a deferred judgment or probation as a sentencing option. The juvenile now challenges, by means of a motion to correct an illegal sentence, the forcible felony sentencing statute under the Iowa Constitution. He argues that the mandatory nature of the prison sentence is unconstitutional given the Iowa Constitution and our precedents in the area of juvenile sentencing. For the reasons set forth below, we find that Iowa Code section 907.3 is not unconstitutional under the Iowa Constitution as applied to juvenile offenders. We vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the judgment of the district court.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         On February 27, 2011, Derek Carr was standing outside his home when Troy Lee Mure Jr. drove up in a vehicle in which Sayvon Propps was a passenger. Propps exited the vehicle, fired four shots into Carr, and got back in the vehicle. Mure immediately drove away from the scene. Carr was hit in his back, buttocks, and leg. He was transported to the hospital where he remained hospitalized for three weeks before he was discharged. Propps was seventeen years of age at the time of the crime.

         On April 20, the State charged Propps with attempted murder in violation of Iowa Code section 707.11 (2011). Propps entered into a plea agreement with the State whereby he agreed to plead guilty to four counts of the lesser charge of willful injury causing serious injury. The State then amended the trial information to charge Propps with four counts of willful injury causing serious injury in violation of Iowa Code section 708.4(1). Because willful injury causing serious injury is a forcible felony, probation is not an option under Iowa law. See Iowa Code § 702.11(1); id. § 907.3.[1]

         Pursuant to the plea agreement, the district court sentenced Propps to indeterminate sentences not to exceed ten years on each of the four counts. The district court ordered each of the sentences to run consecutively to the others for a maximum sentence of forty years. There were no mandatory minimum sentences of incarceration associated with any charge, and no individualized sentencing hearing was conducted.

         On July 31, 2014, Propps filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence. Propps argued that, based on recent federal and state caselaw, the sentence imposed constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Iowa Constitution. Further, Propps argued that the district court was required to conduct an individualized sentencing hearing even though his sentence contained no mandatory minimum period of incarceration. Propps takes this position due to the evolution of our law surrounding the sentencing of juveniles. The State resisted the motion, claiming that Propps did not receive an illegal sentence in this case. The district court denied the motion, reasoning,

As the State points out, the crime-Willful Injury-to which the Defendant pled and was sentenced, does not implicate a mandatory minimum sentence. Since the Defendant is eligible for parole and may be released at any time, the sentences, whether consecutive or concurrent, are not cruel and unusual, do not violate the federal or state constitutions, are therefore not illegal and Defendant is not entitled to a correction of his sentence or resentencing.

         Propps appealed the decision of the district court, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals.

         On appeal, Propps argued that "all juveniles, especially those who have been sentenced to a lengthy term of years, must undergo an individualized sentencing hearing regardless of whether or not the sentence has a mandatory term of years." He asserted that individualized sentencing applied because, as with mandatory minimums, the district court had no choice but to sentence him to a term of imprisonment. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's denial of Propps's motion to correct an illegal sentence. Propps appealed, and we granted further review.

         II. Jurisdictional Argument.

         The State raises the issue of whether we have jurisdiction to hear this appeal. Since the district court ruling is on a motion to correct an illegal sentence, the State argues that Propps cannot appeal the denial of his motion to correct an illegal sentence because the ruling denying such a motion is not a "final judgment of sentence" under Iowa Code section 814.6(1). We requested supplemental briefing to address this preliminary issue.

         Subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim is conferred either constitutionally or statutorily. De Stefano v. Apts. Downtown, Inc., 879 N.W.2d 155, 164 (Iowa 2016). Iowa Rule of Appellate Procedure 6.103(1) provides that "[a]ll final orders and judgments of the district court involving the merits or materially affecting the final decision may be appealed to the supreme court, except as provided in this rule, rule 6.105, and Iowa Code sections 814.5 and 814.6." Iowa R. App. P. 6.103(1).[2]

         Iowa Code section 814.6 contains the standards for subject-matter jurisdiction for the review of a criminal defendant's appeal. Iowa Code § 814.6. Pertinent to this case, a criminal defendant has the "right of appeal" from "[a] final judgment of sentence." Id. A previous version of the statute provided that "[a]n appeal can only be taken from the final judgment, and within sixty days thereafter." Iowa Code § 793.2 (1954). The statute was thereafter amended to include the clarifying language "judgment of sentence." Iowa Code § 814.6 (1983) (emphasis added). This language continues today. See Iowa Code § 814.6(1)(a) (2017).

         This is consistent with the general rule that the "[f]inal judgment in a criminal case means sentence." Daughenbaugh v. State, 805 N.W.2d 591, 595 (Iowa 2011) (quoting Burton v. Stewart, 549 U.S. 147, 156, 127 S.Ct. 793, 798 (2007)); see also State v. Loye, 670 N.W.2d 141, 146 (Iowa 2003). "In criminal cases, as well as civil, the judgment is final for the purpose of appeal 'when it terminates the litigation between the parties on the merits' and 'leaves nothing to be done but to enforce by execution what has been determined.' " State v. Aumann, 236 N.W.2d 320, 321-22 (Iowa 1975) (quoting State v. Klinger, 259 Iowa 381, 383, 144 N.W.2d 150, 151 (1966)). In contrast, "decisions, opinions, findings, or verdicts do not constitute a judgment or decree." Iowa W. Racing Ass'n v. Iowa Racing & Gaming Comm'n, 578 N.W.2d 663, 664 (Iowa 1998) (quoting Wilson v. Corbin, 241 Iowa 226, 228, 40 N.W.2d 472, 474 (1950)).

         The final sentencing order in this case was entered on August 16, 2011. Propps brought a motion to correct an illegal sentence on July 31, 2014, and the district court denied the motion on January 13, 2015. In the ruling denying Propps's motion, the district court neither disturbed the underlying sentence nor entered a new judgment of sentence. An appeal as of right under Iowa Code section 814.6(1)(a) on the grounds of appealing a "final judgment of sentence" was improper in this case. The final judgment of sentence occurred three years prior. However, this does not resolve the jurisdictional issue here.

         A criminal defendant may challenge an illegal sentence at any time under Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.24. Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.24(5)(a); see also State v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d 862, 869 (Iowa 2009). A defendant may appeal the denial of a motion to correct an illegal sentence by applying for discretionary review under either Iowa Code section 814.6(2)(e) or Iowa Rule of Appellate Procedure 6.106. Iowa Code § 814.6(2)(e) (allowing discretionary review of "[a]n order raising a question of law important to the judiciary and the profession"); Iowa R. App. P. 6.106 ("An application for discretionary review may be filed to review certain orders specified by statute which are not subject to appeal as a matter of right."). A defendant may also appeal the denial of a motion to correct an illegal sentence by petition for writ of certiorari under Iowa Rule of Appellate Procedure 6.107. Iowa R. App. P. 6.107(1)(a) ("Any party claiming a district court judge . . . exceeded the judge's jurisdiction or otherwise acted illegally may commence an original certiorari action in the supreme court by filing a petition for writ of certiorari."). Because section 814.6(1)(a) does not apply to a defendant's motion to correct an illegal sentence, one of these actions would have been the proper method for bringing such a challenge.

         However, a "court has inherent power to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the subject matter of the proceedings before it." Klinge v. Bentien, 725 N.W.2d 13, 15 (Iowa 2006) (quoting Tigges v. City of Ames, 356 N.W.2d 503, 512 (Iowa 1984)). Discretionary review is available under section 814.6 to orders "raising a question of law important to the judiciary and the profession." Iowa Code § 814.6(2)(e). Additionally, if a case is initiated by a notice of appeal, but another form of review is proper, we may choose to proceed as though the proper form of review was requested by the defendant rather than dismiss the action. Iowa R. App. P. 6.108. Accordingly, we will treat Propps's notice of appeal and accompanying briefs as a petition for writ of certiorari, as we conclude that appeals from a motion to correct an illegal sentence are most appropriately fashioned in this manner. We grant the petition for writ of certiorari.

         III. Standard of Review.

         An unconstitutional sentence is an illegal sentence, and therefore may be corrected at any time. State v. Lyle, 854 N.W.2d 378, 382 (Iowa 2014); see also Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.24(5)(a). While we ordinarily review challenges to illegal sentences for correction of legal errors, our standard of review for an allegation of an unconstitutional sentence is de novo. Lyle, 854 N.W.2d at 382.

         IV. Analysis.

         A. Indeterminate Sentencing and Parole.

         A determinate sentence imposes a specific number of years of imprisonment on a defendant, while an indeterminate sentence is one in which the legislature has set a range of the minimum and maximum amount of years deemed appropriate for the crime. See, e.g., 6 Wayne R. LaFave et al., Criminal Procedure § 26.1(c) (2016). Indeterminate sentences are parole eligible, while determinate sentences are not. Id. In this case, the district court sentenced Propps to four indeterminate sentences with no mandatory minimum sentence, making Propps immediately eligible for parole.

         Once an incarcerated individual is eligible for parole, the Iowa Board of Parole is required to hold yearly file reviews. Iowa Code § 906.5(1)(a); see also Iowa Board of Parole, FAQ/Information, (last visited Mar. 20, 2017) (stating the board of parole is required to hold yearly reviews for every eligible offender) [hereinafter Iowa Board of Parole, FAQ/Information].

         When the board of parole reviews a file, it may choose to give the offender work release, deny release, or set up an interview. Iowa Code § 906.3, .5. If the board sets up an interview, it uses the interview to determine whether the individual offender should be released to the community under parole supervision for the remainder of the sentence. Id. When making the decision to release an inmate on parole, the board considers a number of factors, including

a. Previous criminal record;
b. Nature and circumstances of the offense;
c. Recidivism record;
d. Convictions or behavior indicating a propensity for violence;
e. Participation in institutional programs, including academic and vocational training;
f. Psychiatric and psychological evaluations;
g. Length of time served;
h. Evidence of serious or habitual institutional misconduct;
i. Success or failure while on probation;
j. Prior parole or work release history;
k. Prior refusal to accept parole or work ...

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