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State v. Iowa District Court for Polk County

Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 7, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellant,

         Certiorari to the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Odell G. McGhee II, District Associate Judge.

         In this certiorari action, the State challenges an order converting part of a jail-room-and-board reimbursement debt into a community service obligation.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kevin Cmelik and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellant.

          Ronald Cortez Robinson Gochett, self-represented appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Tabor and Bower, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         The State brought this certiorari action to contest the district court's authority to convert fees charged by the sheriff for room and board into a community service obligation where Polk County did not pursue the claim as restitution under Iowa Code section 356.7(2)(i) (2015). The State argues that when a sheriff chooses to enforce the reimbursement claim by execution under Iowa Code chapter 626, the district court cannot "usurp" the county's right to collect the entire payment.

         The State's argument cannot prevail on the facts before us. The assistant county attorney characterized the fees approved under section 356.7 as "court debt" as defined in Iowa Code section 602.8017(1)(a). When a defendant is not reasonably able to pay all or part of his or her court debt, a judicial officer may substitute community service in lieu of correctional fees. Iowa Ct. R. 26.4(2). Because that court rule provided authorization for the district court's action, we annul the writ.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Ronald Gochett pleaded guilty to third-offense possession of marijuana and eluding, receiving a seven-year prison sentence in February 2015. He appealed the plea and sentence, alleging he received ineffective assistance of counsel because he was not informed about the applicable surcharges at the plea hearing and his sentence was illegal because it included an assessment of costs for dismissed charges. Our court affirmed the judgment, preserved his ineffective-assistance claim for postconviction relief, and remanded for resentencing with respect to the assessment of costs on the dismissed charges. See State v. Gochett, No. 15-0418, 2017 WL 1735606, at *2 (Iowa Ct. App. May 3, 2017).

         Meanwhile, in late April 2015, the Polk County Sheriff's Office sought reimbursement for Gochett's 120-day jail stay. At $60 per day, plus a $75 administrative charge, the tab totaled $7275.00. On May 1, 2015, the district court approved the claim, finding the amount to be "fair and reasonable." Seventeen days later, on May 18, the Polk County Attorney sent a memorandum to the clerk of court indicating it was "pursuing the collection of delinquent obligations" in Gochett's case in accordance with Iowa Code section 331.756(5).

         Gochett was released from prison and placed on parole in November 2015. In October 2016, his parole officer instructed him to set up a payment plan for his court debt, according to Gochett's testimony at the hearing on the room-and-board reimbursement. Rather than entering a payment plan, on October 31, Gochett filed a handwritten motion asking to "have a hearing to reduce room and board fees" in his felony case. That same day, the district court filed an order converting $3500 of Gochett's room-and-board fees to 483 hours of community service. The order also set a "contempt of court" hearing for December 22, 2016.[1]

         The Polk County Attorney filed a resistance to Gochett's motion to reduce the room-and-board fees and a motion to set aside the court's order converting a portion of the fees to community service. Before the December hearing, the county attorney filed an exhibit list, including a printout of the "Financials" screen from Iowa-Courts-On-Line, showing "costs" due including $7275 for reimbursement to the sheriff for room and board.

         On December 22, Gochett appeared for a "contempt hearing" where the district court considered his motion to modify the room-and-board fees and the State's motion to set aside the order converting a portion of those fees to community service. The court noted Gochett's plea-and-sentencing appeal was still pending. The court set his first payment on the plan of restitution for thirty days after procedendo issued. The parties stipulated Gochett had already completed fifty hours of community service. The court directed the clerk to credit that community service toward Gochett's outstanding court-reporter and filing fees. The question concerning the room-and-board fees was set for hearing on February 13, 2017.

         At the February hearing, the assistant county attorney argued "nothing in [section] 356.7 . . . allows the court to convert the judgment to community service" because the sheriff had not pursued the claim as restitution under Iowa Code chapter 910. The assistant count attorney asserted "court debt is under [section] 602.8107. . . . [I]f he is not making the payments and he is in default, he is delinquent, then it goes to collections under [section] 602.8107. So he's supposed to enter a payment plan with the Clerk of Court."

         Gochett, who did not have counsel at the hearing, told the court: "I know I owe the money . . . I know I got to pay it somehow, whether it be community service, or whatever. But I was trying to do whatever I could do to get it paid." Under examination by the assistant county attorney, Gochett testified he had been employed since February 2016, earning $16.50 an hour and working ...

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