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State v. Zachary Lee Church

Court of Appeals of Iowa

June 7, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
ZACHARY LEE CHURCH, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Black Hawk County, Joel A. Dalrymple, Judge.

         A defendant appeals his convictions for assault of a peace officer, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and operating while intoxicated. AFFIRMED.

          Benjamin D. Bergmann of Parrish Kruidenier Dunn Boles Gribble Gentry Brown & Bergmann L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Thomas E. Bakke, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Danilson, C.J., and Vogel and Vaitheswaran, JJ.

          VOGEL, Judge.

         Zachary Church appeals his convictions for assault of a peace officer, in violation of Iowa Code section 708.3A(4) (2013); possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, in violation of Iowa Code section 124.401(1)(d); and operating while intoxicated, in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.21. Specifically, Church claims the district court erred in excluding evidence he sought to admit regarding the officer's prior conduct, allowing testimony which referenced evidence he claims was inadmissible hearsay, and denying his motion to sever the charges.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         During the early morning hours of December 25, 2013, a Cedar Falls police officer was patrolling in his vehicle when he saw a car stopped in the street. The car's lights were on; the engine was running, and the officer noticed one occupant inside.

         After pulling up next to the car, the officer observed a male slumped forward in the driver's seat who did not react to the officer's presence or the officer's flashing his flashlight on the occupant. The officer then positioned his vehicle behind the car. The officer approached the car on foot and noticed the occupant was still slumped forward. As the driver's side door was unlocked, the officer opened the door. The officer testified that he immediately smelled a strong odor of alcohol, as well as burnt marijuana. The occupant of the vehicle began to stir and reach for the ignition. The officer then reached in the car and removed the keys.

         The occupant then sat back, and the officer noticed the occupant had bloodshot, watery eyes and his face was flush. As the officer believed he was observing signs of intoxication, he radioed police dispatch and requested another officer be sent to the scene. After asking the occupant to step out of the car, the officer requested identification, which the occupant provided. The officer identified the man as Church. Because he believed Church may be intoxicated, the officer walked Church back to the squad car.

         Upon reaching the squad car, the officer opened the rear, passenger-side door and told Church to have a seat in the car. Rather than doing so, Church struck the officer in the head with his fist, knocking the officer to his knees. From that position, the officer grabbed Church around the legs; Church struck the officer several more times. The officer struggled to get to his feet and attempted to radio for help. As he was hunched over and still trying to deflect blows from Church, the officer felt Church pulling on the officer's gun. Church knocked the officer on his back, and the officer said, "Stop, or I will shoot you." Church continued to strike the officer; the officer then shot Church once in the torso. Initially, Church was knocked back by the shot, but then he started moving towards the officer again. The officer then shot Church two more times. Church backed up and ran to his vehicle. About that time, several other officers arrived and detained Church. The officers found marijuana, a scale, plastic bags, and money in the car. A blood test taken several hours later revealed THC and alcohol in Church's system.

         On February 5, 2014, the State charged Church with assault of a peace officer with intent to inflict serious injury, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and operating while intoxicated. Prior to trial, Church filed a motion to sever the assault-of-a-peace-officer count from the other two counts, claiming the allegations were not part of the same transaction or a common scheme and good cause existed to sever the charges. The district court disagreed and denied the motion.

         At trial, the State sought to admit testimony that referenced the existence of text messages from Church's phone suggesting Church was involved in purchasing and selling marijuana. Church objected to the testimony on hearsay grounds; the State argued the text messages-which themselves were not offered into evidence-were not hearsay. Further, the State argued that Church had opened the door to the introduction of the testimony while cross-examining a police investigator about the lack of evidence of records or ledgers tracking drug-distribution activity. The court overruled the objection and allowed the State to admit the testimony. Church attempted to introduce evidence of other incidences involving this officer, suggesting he had previously been accused of using excessive force. The State objected on relevance grounds. The district court excluded the evidence, concluding it was irrelevant and even if it was relevant, its probative value was substantially outweighed by the unfairly prejudicial nature of the evidence.

         On July 6, 2015, the jury found Church guilty of the lesser-included offense of assault on a peace officer, as well as guilty of possession with intent to deliver and operating while intoxicated. Church appeals.

         II. Scope and Standard of Review

         Generally, we review evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion. State v. Tyler, 867 N.W.2d 136, 152 (Iowa 2015). "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.'" State v. Miller, 841 N.W.2d 583, 586 (Iowa 2014) (quoting Rowedder v. Anderson, 814 N.W.2d 585, 589 (Iowa 2012)). "A ground or reason is untenable when it is not supported by substantial evidence or when it is based on an erroneous application of the law." Graber v. City of Ankeny, 616 N.W.2d 633, 638 (Iowa 2000).

         When an evidentiary ruling admitting evidence challenged as hearsay is appealed, our review is for correction of errors at law. See State v. Buenaventura, 660 N.W.2d 38, 50 (Iowa 2003).

         We review rulings on a motion to sever charges for abuse of discretion. State v. Geier, 484 N.W.2d 167, 172 (Iowa 1992). "To prove the district court abused its discretion in refusing to sever charges, [the defendant] bears the burden of showing prejudice resulting from joinder outweighed the State's ...


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