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State v. Roby

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 16, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Black Hawk County, Stephen C. Clarke, Judge.

         Christopher Ryan Lee Roby challenges the district court's imposition of a minimum term of incarceration without the possibility of parole following a resentencing hearing in which the district court was to consider certain mitigating factors attributable to his youth at the time of the offense.

          John Audlehelm of Audlehelm Law Office, Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kyle Hanson, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.


         In this appeal, we must decide if article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution categorically prohibits any minimum term of incarceration without the possibility of parole when imposed on an individual who was a juvenile at the time of the offense. If it does not, we must also decide whether the district court erred in resentencing Christopher Roby to a minimum term of incarceration following a hearing in which the court was to consider certain mitigating factors attributable to his youth at the time of the offense. In December of 2004, a jury found Roby guilty of two counts of sexual abuse for his conduct when he was sixteen and seventeen years of age. The court initially sentenced him, as required by statute, to twenty-five years with a mandatory minimum of seventeen and one-half years for sexual abuse in the second degree and a concurrent term of ten years for sexual abuse in the third degree. Following our decision in State v. Lyle, 854 N.W.2d 378 (2014), in which we held all statutorily imposed mandatory minimums constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Iowa Constitution, the district court held a resentencing hearing to determine whether the minimum term of incarceration should be imposed. It found it should and issued an order detailing its reasoning. Roby appealed, arguing any minimum term of incarceration without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional and, in the alternative, that the district court failed to properly apply the factors we identified in Lyle. The court of appeals disagreed with Roby on both matters and affirmed the sentence. We granted further review. On further review, we find the Iowa Constitution does not prohibit a district court from sentencing a juvenile offender to a minimum term of incarceration without the possibility of parole, but we remand for resentencing.

         I. Factual Background and Proceedings.

         Christopher Roby was convicted following a jury trial of the crimes of sexual abuse in the second and third degrees on December 2, 2004. He was sixteen and seventeen when he committed the crimes. The conviction resulted from Roby's inappropriate sexual conduct with S.M., who was ages eleven through thirteen during the relevant times.

         A. The Offenses.

         The first incident, for which Roby was not prosecuted, but the jury did hear evidence on, was apparently in the spring of 1998. Roby was staying at S.M.'s house. S.M.'s parents were downstairs, while S.M. and her siblings, along with Roby, were upstairs. This was not unusual. Roby was S.M.'s brother's best friend since kindergarten and would often stay overnight. He was considered a member of the family and would even accompany them on vacations and to church. S.M., then ten years old, fell asleep in her parents' bedroom while watching television. She awoke to Roby, then fifteen, forcing his hand under her pants and underwear. She immediately left the room, went downstairs, and told her parents what had occurred. S.M.'s parents were furious and confronted Roby, who left the house with S.M.'s brother, and the two walked to a gas station before Roby went home to his own parents. S.M.'s parents did not contact the police or Roby's parents at that time.

         After about six to eight weeks, S.M.'s parents allowed Roby back into the home. They insisted Roby not be left alone with S.M. Over time, however, this precaution eased. Years passed with Roby frequently coming and going and staying over, just as he was before the initial incident. In March of 2002, Roby, now eighteen, left for the Navy. In September of 2002, he returned on leave. That was when S.M., now fourteen, confided in her brother's girlfriend that Roby had been abusing her ever since being let back into the house. S.M. stated the abuse would occur nearly every time Roby had stayed over during the preceding three years and that it occurred again with Roby back on leave. Either Roby would touch S.M.'s genitals and breasts or he would force S.M. to masturbate him. This contact with S.M. was always nonconsensual and was severely impacting her mental health. S.M.'s parents learned of the abuse, and S.M.'s mother confronted Roby. Roby denied any contact occurred. S.M.'s mother then went to the police.

         The police arrested Roby. There is some indication Roby initially thought the police were investigating him for stealing a video game or maybe thought admitting that crime would deflect them from investigating the abuse. During an interrogation, Roby confessed to the contact. However, the court ultimately suppressed the interrogation because Roby only confessed after the investigator implied he must submit to a polygraph for use in court, promised him leniency, and threatened greater punishment if he continued to deny the allegations.

         After the interrogation, Roby was charged and released on bond to return to the Navy. He served for two years until being discharged to answer for this case. The prosecutor had initially charged Roby with one count of sexual abuse in the third degree for the alleged conduct while Roby was eighteen and S.M. was under fourteen. After a breakdown in plea negotiations, the prosecutor charged Roby with four counts, delineated by Roby and S.M.'s birthdays: (Count I) sexual abuse in the second degree for conduct occurring when S.M. was under twelve and Roby was fifteen or sixteen, (Count II) sexual abuse in the third degree for conduct occurring when S.M. was under fourteen and Roby was under eighteen, (Count III) sexual abuse in the third degree for conduct occurring when S.M. was under fourteen and Roby was eighteen, and (Count IV) sexual abuse in the third degree for conduct occurring when S.M. was fourteen and Roby was eighteen. After Roby moved to dismiss Count I for alleging conduct while Roby was fifteen and therefore under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the prosecutor amended Count I a second time and confined it to the time after Roby turned sixteen. Thus, while the jury heard evidence regarding the initial incident when S.M. told her parents Roby was touching her while she was sleeping, he was not charged for this event. Instead, he was charged based on S.M.'s statements of continuing abuse from that point.

         At trial, the State presented testimony from S.M., her parents, and her brother. Roby did not testify. He also did not present witnesses. The jury found Roby guilty of Counts I and II. They found him guilty of sexual abuse occurring when Roby was sixteen and S.M. was eleven, and when Roby was seventeen and S.M. was twelve or thirteen years old. The jury found Roby not guilty of Counts III and IV, abuse occurring after he turned eighteen.

         B. Initial Sentencing.

         A presentence investigation (PSI) report was prepared, and the court held a sentencing hearing with testimony from Roby and his parents. Though the record is limited on Roby's life before prison, at least some history appears from trial testimony, this hearing, and the PSI. The record shows Roby was born two months premature on December 20, 1983. His mother indicated his biological father abducted, abused, and neglected him for four years when he was very young. Roby's father eventually returned him to his mother in Waterloo, who later married a man who adopted Roby. Roby's mother was a homemaker and his adoptive father worked for a farm implement company as a designer. Roby is the middle child of three. He maintained a good relationship with his family, despite the absence of his biological father, but generally felt his childhood was "rough." He was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. He completed the tenth grade at Expo Alternative Learning Center in Waterloo and reported getting along well with his teachers, although he was suspended once for fighting. Roby joined the Navy to, in his words, straighten out his life. The PSI reported Roby frequently consumed alcohol while in the Navy and used marijuana. At sentencing, Roby denied any alcohol or drug use. Roby had no juvenile record before this case.

         Roby's mother testified,

It just seems like it's been one thing after another with this kid. . . . This kid has tried and tried and tried to get his life on track, and it seems like every time he does, it's one thing after another waitin' there to knock him back down. And now you're going to take him away from me for 25 years or whatever, and I just-I think it's ridiculous.

         Roby's adoptive father testified,

I think the penalty for the crime far outweighs the crime. It's absurd and it's even more absurd that the judge is not allowed to make any adjustments to that. I don't think you can take things like that away from the judges. Second-degree sexual abuse, you can't lump all of them into one. Chris was a minor when it happened. And like what he did get a little therapy, you don't put them in jail for 25 years. That's not going to solve anything.

         Roby also testified. He maintained his innocence and stated, "There's just so many inconsistencies in her story, and I mean, I just-I don't see how one person can-can take another person's life like this."

         The court sentenced Roby, stating, "The court is sympathetic to the feelings of the family, however, as they point out, this is the only disposition available to the court under the law[] as it presently stands." The court was statutorily required to, and did, impose the maximum sentence of twenty-five years on Count I with a mandatory minimum of seventeen and one-half years before eligibility for parole. The court imposed a concurrent sentence of ten years for Count II. This was in January of 2005. Roby had recently turned twenty-one while in jail awaiting sentencing.

         C. Resentencing.

         In 2014, following this court's holdings in State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41 (Iowa 2013), State v. Pearson, 836 N.W.2d 88 (Iowa 2013), and State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107 (Iowa 2013), Roby, who was thirty years old, moved to correct an illegal sentence. He argued he was entitled to an individualized review under the principles of those cases. Around the same time, we issued our opinion in Lyle and confirmed juveniles like Roby were entitled to individualized review of their statutorily imposed sentences. 854 N.W.2d at 404. Pursuant to these opinions, the court held a resentencing hearing to correct the statutorily mandated minimum sentence of seventeen and one-half years using the five factors identified in Lyle:

(1) the age of the offender and the features of youthful behavior, such as "immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences"; (2) the particular "family and home environment" that surround the youth; (3) the circumstances of the particular crime and all circumstances relating to youth that may have played a role in the commission of the crime; (4) the challenges for youthful offenders in navigating through the criminal process; and (5) the possibility of rehabilitation and the capacity for change.

Id. at 404 n.10 (quoting Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2468 (2012)). On "considering all the relevant factors and facts of the case, " the district court had to either "resentence [Roby] by imposing a condition that [Roby] be eligible for parole" or, "[i]f the mandatory minimum period of incarceration is warranted, . . . impose the sentence provided for under the statute, as previously imposed." Id.

         Roby presented his prison disciplinary and other prison treatment records. This was the only exhibit. Roby's counsel addressed the Lyle factors by first noting Roby was kicked out of his parents' home, indicating a lack of familial support. Roby's counsel continued, noting Roby had no prior criminal record. She argued Roby had difficulties navigating the criminal justice system as indicated by the interrogation the court ultimately had to suppress. She noted he served two years in the Navy. She argued he had the potential to be rehabilitated based on his prison disciplinary records, which showed most of his violations occurred early on in his incarceration. She also noted he had obtained his GED, taken a college course, been a lead person in the science shop, worked in the kitchen, and tutored other inmates. Finally, Roby's counsel pointed out that Roby had family in Waterloo willing to assist him on release.

         The State countered that Roby's disciplinary records did not indicate rehabilitation potential because they included an infraction for inappropriately touching female staff. The State also pointed to Roby's failure to obtain sex-offender treatment, which Roby's counsel argued was due to department of corrections backlog and policy not to treat offenders until they are nearing release. The State also argued Roby continued to deny responsibility and blame the victim based on statements he made while being treated for anxiety and sleeplessness. The State concluded as to the first Lyle factor, "It would cut against him because of the multiple acts that were involved in this case." The State continued its arguments on the Lyle factors, noting Roby's home environment was the same as the victim's. As to the circumstances of the crime, the State noted Roby's actions were not sexual exploration, but abuse. As to navigating the criminal process, the State noted Roby had to be taken from the Navy and that he exercised his rights to have the interrogation suppressed. As to rehabilitation, the State again argued Roby failed to take responsibility, as shown by his numerous posttrial appeals and motions.

         Roby testified on his own behalf, stating,

Your Honor, over the last ten years, I've tried to better myself while I was in there. I was told when I was getting my GED, one of the teachers told me that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. So everything I've done since I've been in there has been to make it so I'll be a better person when I get out, Your Honor. I've gotten my GED. I've taken any courses that's been available to me. I've learned job skills. I've learned trades. I've helped other people bettering themselves, teaching them how to do a cover letter, a resume, how to use a computer.
I'm sorry for all of this, Your Honor. I just-I hope that after ten years I can get my life back.

         Approximately a month later, the court issued its ruling.

         As to the first Lyle factor, the court found,

The acts that resulted in the jury's guilty verdicts were not merely based on the defendant's immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate the risks and consequences. In this case this defendant had been confronted at an earlier time about improper touching of this victim. Notwithstanding that, the defendant continued to sexually abuse his victim.

         As to the second factor,

While the defendant's family and home environment were obviously not the best, the victim's family attempted to step in and provide a home for him. It was during this time that the defendant took advantage of the child victim.

         For the third,

The defendant's participation in the conduct that resulted in his conviction was not the result of any familial or peer pressure. It was conduct freely chosen by the defendant with no care at all for the victim and less care for the victim's family that was giving him a home.

         The court did not address the fourth factor, but noted as to the fifth,

While the court may have been hopeful that a period of incarceration would have led the defendant to some remorse for his behavior, it is apparent that this is not the case. The documents submitted as Defendant's exhibit 1 show that in an evaluation conducted in May of 2005 at the Iowa Medication and Classification Center the defendant again denied any sexual contact ever occurring with the victim. In a note entitled "Psychological Encounter" showing an encounter date of October 12, 2012, while explaining his sleep problems, it was reported, "He noted that he does not understand how his case has not been overturned because he was not in Iowa at the time of the crime."
The victim stance taken by the defendant does not bode well for rehabilitation. After 10 years the defendant has yet to confront his own behavior or even begin to be able to empathize with the victim of his acts.

         Thus, the court found a mandatory minimum sentence was appropriate. Roby appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed. We granted further review to address Roby's two arguments: (1) that the Iowa Constitution categorically prohibits all minimum terms of incarceration without the possibility of parole when imposed on juveniles, and in the alternative, (2) that the district court erred in its analysis of the Lyle factors.

         II. Standard of Review.

         We review a constitutional challenge to a sentence de novo. See State v. Sweet, 879 N.W.2d 811, 816 (Iowa 2016). Roby's first argument is a categorical one, and therefore, we apply de novo review. See, e.g., id. at 816-17; see also Lyle, 854 N.W.2d at 382-83. However, the parties dispute the appropriate standard of review on Roby's second challenge, and we have not yet established the standard of review for appeals following a juvenile's resentencing hearing.

         As we recently noted in State v. Seats, "We have expressed three different standards of review when a defendant challenges his or her sentence on appeal." 865 N.W.2d 545, 552 (Iowa 2015). We review for an "abuse of discretion, " our most deferential standard, "if the sentence is within the statutory limits." Id. We review for "correction of errors at law, " an intermediate standard, "when the defendant challenges the legality of a sentence on nonconstitutional grounds." Id. at 553. Finally, we apply de novo review, our least deferential standard, to constitutional challenges. Id.

         Roby reasons the individualized hearing requirement is constitutional in origin, and therefore, an appeal from such a hearing is on constitutional grounds subject to de novo review. The State argues the sentence imposed is within the statutory limits, and therefore, our review is for an abuse of discretion. The court of appeals in this case reviewed Roby's resentencing hearing for an abuse of discretion. We affirm this approach, but would elaborate on the use of the abuse-of-discretion standard in the juvenile sentencing context.

         We begin by noting an unconstitutional sentence remains unconstitutional even if the district court held a hearing before imposing it. See Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. ___, ___, 136 S.Ct. 718, 734 (2016) ("Even if a court considers a child's age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects 'unfortunate yet transient immaturity.' " (quoting Miller, 567 U.S. at ___, 132 S.Ct. at 2469)). However, we have not yet categorically declared all minimum sentences of incarceration unconstitutional when imposed on juvenile offenders. See Lyle, 854 N.W.2d at 403 ("[T]he holding in this case does not prohibit judges from sentencing juveniles to prison for the length of time identified by the legislature for the crime committed . . . ."). Instead, we have held it is the "absence of a sentencing procedure" that offends article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. Id. at 402. Thus, when there is an appropriate sentencing procedure there is no constitutional violation. Under our existing law, if the district court follows the sentencing procedure we have identified and a statute authorizes the sentence ultimately imposed, then our review is for abuse of discretion; we ask whether there is "evidence [that] supports the sentence." Seats, 865 N.W.2d at 553.

         However, we agree with a recent decision from a Michigan appellate court that "the abuse-of-discretion standard requires further explanation in this context." See People v. Hyatt, 891 N.W.2d 549, 576 (Mich. Ct. App. 2016). Although the Michigan court was reviewing the imposition of a sentence of life without parole, we find the special considerations involved in sentencing a juvenile offender to an adult sentence similarly mean that, "even under this deferential standard, an appellate court should view such a sentence as inherently suspect, " and "cannot merely rubber-stamp the trial court's sentencing decision." Id. at 577-78. We too import this guidance from the Eighth Circuit:

A discretionary sentencing ruling, similarly, may be [an abuse of discretion] if a sentencing court fails to consider a relevant factor that should have received significant weight, gives significant weight to an improper or irrelevant factor, or considers only appropriate factors but nevertheless commits a clear error of judgment by arriving at a sentence that lies outside the limited range of choice dictated by the facts of the case.

Id. at 578 (alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Haack, 403 F.3d 997, 1004 (8th Cir. 2005)). In sum, while the review is for abuse of discretion, it is not forgiving of a deficiency in the constitutional right to a reasoned sentencing decision based on a proper hearing.

         III. The Categorical Challenge.

         Like the United States Supreme Court, we address a categorical constitutional challenge to a sentencing practice by using a two-step analysis. See Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 61, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 2022 (2010); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 564, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 1192 (2005); Sweet, 879 N.W.2d at 835; Lyle, 854 N.W.2d at 386. Under this analysis, we first "look to whether there is a consensus, or at least an emerging consensus, " to guide our consideration of the question. Sweet, 879 N.W.2d at 835. "Second, we exercise our independent judgment" to decide the question. Id. In this case, the question is whether a twenty-five-year sentence with a minimum period of incarceration of seventeen and one-half years for a juvenile offender convicted of sexual abuse is categorically prohibited under the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Iowa Constitution. In other words, the question is whether our constitution requires all juvenile offenders be immediately eligible for parole.

         A. Evidence of Consensus.

         We recognize the presence or absence of a national consensus is normally indicated by the actions of legislatures. See, e.g., Graham, 560 U.S. at 61, 130 S.Ct. at 2022 ("The Court first considers 'objective indicia of society's standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice, ' to determine whether there is a national consensus against the sentencing practice at issue." (quoting Roper, 543 U.S. at 563, 125 S.Ct. at 1191)).

         When we decided Lyle, we noted some states had already "limited or abolished mandatory minimums for juveniles." 854 N.W.2d at 386 n.3 (compiling statutes). Since then, state legislatures have continued to reform their state's juvenile justice systems. For example, many jurisdictions have reconsidered "the more sweeping question of whether too many juveniles are being tried in 'adult' court."[1] Brief of the Charles Hamilton Houston Inst. for Race & Justice and Criminal Justice Inst. as Amici Curiae in Support of Neither Party, Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. 718 (No. 14-280), 2015 WL 4624172, at *11. Others have shortened the minimum term of incarceration juveniles must serve before parole eligibility.[2] Still others are working to improve juvenile justice by providing safer facilities[3] and greater access to rehabilitative programs.[4]All the foregoing tells us juvenile justice is undergoing significant and comprehensive reform. However, it also tells us that, in this time of feverish legislative action, no legislature has chosen to require a Miller-type hearing before imposing any minimum term of incarceration, and no legislature has chosen to make all juvenile offenders immediately eligible for parole.

         Yet, we may broaden our inquiry to consider rapid changes in constitutional protections. See Lyle, 854 N.W.2d at 387. The State of Iowa was the first to prohibit sentencing juveniles to statutorily imposed mandatory minimums. See id. at 386 (noting no court has constitutionally prohibited the practice, and most states permit or require minimum sentences). We are aware of one state supreme court that has since held similarly. See State v. Houston-Sconiers, 391 P.3d 409, 420 (Wash. 2017) ("In accordance with Miller, we hold that sentencing courts must have complete discretion to consider mitigating circumstances associated with the youth of any juvenile defendant . . . ." (Emphasis added.)). We also note courts are still in the midst of defining the new system of individualized hearings, with little uniformity emerging as to either when the hearing is required and what it should look like. Compare Landrum v. State, 192 So.3d 459, 467 (Fla. 2016) (concluding a Miller-type hearing is required before a sentencing court may impose a discretionary sentence of life without parole), with Foster v. State, 754 S.E.2d 33, 37 (Ga. 2014) (finding Miller-type hearing inapplicable to discretionary sentence of life without parole). Compare Casiano v. Comm'r of Corr., 115 A.3d 1031, 1044 (Conn. 2015) (concluding Miller applies to juvenile offenders sentenced to the "functional equivalent" of life without parole), with State v. Ali, ___ N.W.2d ___, ___, 2017 WL 2152730, at *1 (Minn. 2017) (holding Miller only applies to the specific sentence of life without parole). Compare State v. Charles, 892 N.W.2d 915, 922-23 (S.D. 2017) (finding a resentencing hearing satisfied the standard announced in Miller), with People v. Berg, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 786, 795 (Cal.Ct.App. 2016) (finding a resentencing hearing failed to satisfy Miller). The Supreme Court has intervened only to say that parole eligibility is the simplest way to cure an otherwise constitutionally impermissible juvenile sentence. See Montgomery, 577 U.S. at ___, 136 S.Ct. at 736. In all, we can foresee these challenges will continue, with frequency, for some time before the Constitution's role in sentencing juveniles is clarified.

         We may also consider changes in professional opinion and scholarly commentary in finding consensus. See Sweet, 879 N.W.2d at 835-36. Many academics appear comfortable with the idea of either individualized sentencing or "a system of minimum sentences for juvenile offenders that are shorter in duration than those imposed on their adult counterparts." Elizabeth Scott et al., Juvenile Sentencing Reform in a Constitutional Framework, 88 Temp. L. Rev. 675, 708 (2016) [hereinafter Scott]. But others assert the time has come to refocus on rehabilitative efforts, with a heavy emphasis on the availability of parole. See Martin Gardner, Youthful Offenders and the Eighth Amendment Right to Rehabilitation: Limitations on the Punishment of Juveniles, 83 Tenn. L. Rev. 455, 495 (2016) ("Rather than either parole release or individualized presentencing hearings, the best reading of Roper/Graham/Miller requires both."). As one commentator explains,

Given the Court's acknowledgment of the pre-sentence impossibility of precisely distinguishing those juveniles whose crimes are one-time products of "transient immaturity" and those "rare [offenders] whose crime[s] reflect irreparable corruption, " rehabilitation programs within prison with parole release are necessary to effectuate a youthful offender's right to a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." Moreover, because rehabilitation can occur at any time and requires immediate release from prison upon its occurrence, it follows that mandatory minimum sentences can no longer be imposed on juvenile offenders if Graham is followed to its logical conclusions.

Id. at 495-96 (alterations in original) (footnotes omitted) (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 68, 75, 130 S.Ct. at 2026, 2030). In addition, the American Law Institute (ALI), in section 6.11A of its Model Penal Code: Sentencing, proposes the court must always have the "authority to impose a sentence that deviates from any mandatory-minimum term of imprisonment under state law, " in keeping with its "categorical disapproval" of mandatory penalty provisions. See Model Penal Code: Sentencing § 6.11A(f) & cmt. f, at 36, 43 (Am. Law. Inst., Tent. Draft No. 2, 2011). This section was approved in 2011, one year prior to the Supreme Court's guidance in Miller. See Model Penal Code: Sentencing at xii (Am. Law. Inst., Tent. Draft No. 4, 2016). Even then, the ALI recognized the lessened blameworthiness of juvenile offenders, their potential for rehabilitation, and the lack of "persuasive empirical support for the proposition that increased punishment severity acts as an effective deterrent of criminal acts." ...

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