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State v. Spencer

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 16, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
JOSEPH ANTHONY SPENCER, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Mary Pat Gunderson (motion to suppress) and David N. May (trial and sentencing), Judges.

         Joseph Spencer appeals his convictions of possession of a controlled substance, third or subsequent offense, as a habitual offender, and eluding and the sentences imposed.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Bradley M. Bender, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Sharon K. Hall, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

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

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         Joseph Spencer appeals his convictions of possession of a controlled substance, third or subsequent offense, as a habitual offender, in violation of Iowa Code sections 124.401(5), 902.8, and 902.9(1)(c) (2016), and eluding, in violation of Iowa Code section 321.279(3)(a), and the sentences imposed. He contends the district court erred in: (1) denying his motion to suppress evidence, (2) imposing an illegal felony sentence on the possession charge, and (3) imposing an illegal fine on the possession charge.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         At approximately 11:50 p.m. on April 29, 2016, Des Moines Police Officers Danner and Harden observed a white Buick drive past them with a non-functioning rear left license plate lamp. The officers followed the vehicle. While the Buick was stopped for a red light, the officers turned off their patrol vehicle's lights to verify the license plate light was not functioning. After verifying the light was not working, the officers conducted a traffic stop of the vehicle. Officer Danner made initial contact with the driver, Spencer. While at the driver's window, Officer Danner detected the odor of marijuana and non-verbally signaled his observation to his partner. Danner asked Spencer to exit the vehicle but did not explain why he was directing him to exit. Spencer refused, rolled up his window, locked the door, and left the area at a high rate of speed with the officers in pursuit.

         Polk County sheriff's deputies joined in the pursuit of Spencer's vehicle, reaching speeds estimated at sixty to seventy miles per hour in a twenty-five mile-per-hour speed-limit area. Spencer's vehicle eventually left the roadway and hit a light pole and a parked vehicle. Spencer ran from the vehicle into a nearby field with officers in pursuit and was eventually caught and taken into custody. Police recovered an empty plastic bag which smelled of marijuana near the area Spencer was taken into custody. Marijuana was also found near the driver's side door of Spencer's vehicle and scattered throughout the front portion of the vehicle. Dashboard cameras in both the police and sheriff's deputy's vehicles recorded the events.

         A trial information was filed on June 6, charging Spencer with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, second or subsequent offense, as a habitual offender, and eluding as a habitual offender. On August 17, Spencer filed a motion to suppress, claiming the stop and search violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. A hearing on the motion was held at which Spencer argued the officers lacked the probable cause or reasonable suspicion necessary to justify the initial stop. He argued that because one of his license plate lights did work and sufficiently illuminated his plate, the officers did not have a valid basis for the traffic stop based upon an alleged violation of Iowa Code section 321.388, the only proffered basis for the initial stop. Both Officers Danner and Harden testified as to their observations about the license plate light and the recording from the police cruiser's video-recording system was admitted as an exhibit.[1] Following the hearing, the court found the officers had probable cause to stop Spencer's vehicle pursuant to section 321.388 and denied the motion to suppress.

         Thereafter, Spencer waived his right to a jury trial, was tried on the minutes of evidence, and was found guilty of the lesser-included offense of possession of marijuana, third or subsequent offense, and eluding. The parties stipulated the habitual-offender enhancement would only apply to the possession charge. Spencer was sentenced in accordance with a joint recommendation of an indeterminate term of incarceration not to exceed fifteen years with a mandatory three-year minimum for the possession offense and five years of incarceration on the eluding offense, to be served consecutively. The court also imposed a suspended fine for each offense. Spencer appeals.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review alleged violations of constitutional rights de novo. State v. Lyon, 862 N.W.2d 391, 394 (Iowa 2015). We make an independent evaluation of the totality of circumstances shown by the entire record. Id. We give deference to the district court's factual findings, ...


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