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State v. Harris

Court of Appeals of Iowa

December 20, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Thomas G. Reidel, Judge.

         Stephanie Harris appeals the sentence imposed following a guilty plea to two charges.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Shellie L. Knipfer, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kelli A. Huser, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Danilson, C.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         The following facts are not disputed. In October 2014, Stephanie Harris was caring for several children, including her cousin's two children, A.B. and M.B. At that time, the children's mother was incarcerated. As a result of Harris's lack of supervision, A.B., a two-year-old girl, fell down the stairs and injured her head. After the fall, the child began having seizures. Harris merely placed frozen food on the bump on the child's head. Harris did not seek medical attention for the child until six days later. The child ultimately died. The child's sibling, M.B., a four-year-old boy, suffered a bodily injury while in Harris's care. Again, Harris did not facilitate medical treatment for the child for six days.

         The State initially charged Harris with child endangerment resulting in death as to A.B. The State subsequently amended the trial information to include two additional counts: child endangerment resulting in serious injury as to A.B. and child endangerment resulting in bodily injury as to M.B. See Iowa Code § 726.6(1)(d), (5), (6) (2014). The State agreed to dismiss the first count in return for Harris's guilty plea to counts two and three. The plea agreement left open whether the sentences on the respective offenses would run consecutively or concurrently. Harris ultimately pled guilty to both charges. At the sentencing hearing, the State requested Harris's sentences run consecutively, given the fact that two separate children were injured. Harris, noting her "intellectual disability that is mild" and the fact that the charges stemmed from "one night, " requested her sentences run concurrently.

         The district court sentenced Harris to, among other things, ten years of imprisonment on the charge relating to A.B. and five years of imprisonment on the charge relating to M.B. The court ordered the sentences to run consecutively.

         Harris appeals. She contends, the district court failed to consider the mitigating circumstances that she (1) suffers from a mental impairment and (2) has "no criminal history beyond traffic tickets and one resisting a police officer conviction, " and the district court therefore abused its discretion in ordering her sentences to run consecutively. She also contends the sentencing court's consideration of A.B.'s death was improper.

         When a defendant's sentence is within the statutory limitations, we review the district court's decision for an abuse of discretion, our most deferential standard of review. State v. Roby, 897 N.W.2d 127, 137 (Iowa 2017) (quoting State v. Seats, 865 N.W.2d 545, 552 (Iowa 2015)). "When assessing a district court's decision for abuse of discretion, we only reverse if the district court's decision rested on grounds or reasoning that were clearly untenable or clearly unreasonable." State v. Plain, 898 N.W.2d 801, 811 (Iowa 2017). "Grounds or reasons are untenable if they are 'based on an erroneous application of the law or not supported by substantial evidence.'" Id. (quoting State v. Dudley, 856 N.W.2d 668, 675 (Iowa 2014)).

         "If a person is sentenced for two or more separate offenses, the sentencing judge may order the second or further sentence to begin at the expiration of the first or succeeding sentence." Iowa Code § 901.8; accord State v. Criswell, 242 N.W.2d 259, 260 (Iowa 1976). A sentencing court must state its rationale for imposing consecutive sentences and, "[a]lthough the reasons do not need to be detailed, they must be sufficient to allow appellate review of the discretionary action." State v. Keopasaeuth, 645 N.W.2d 637, 641 (Iowa 2002). A sentencing court is also required "to consider any mitigating circumstances relating to a defendant." State v. Witham, 583 N.W.2d 677, 678 (Iowa 1998); see Iowa Code § 901.3(1)(g).

         In choosing to impose consecutive sentences, the district court stated:

In doing this, I look at the seriousness of the crime, the effect that this crime has upon members of our community, your willingness to accept change and treatment and what we ...

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