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State v. Wetter

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 7, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
CHANCE JACOB WETTER, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Sioux County, John D. Ackerman, Judge.

         Chance Wetter appeals his conviction, following a bench trial, of third-degree sexual abuse.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Sheryl Soich, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         In 2015, S.L.R., a minor, lived with her mother, L.R., in a two-bedroom home. L.R. paid for the utilities and groceries for the home. In June of that year, Chance Wetter was incarcerated. S.L.R. sent Wetter a letter on June 24, offering him a "place to stay" upon his release from jail. Wetter was released from jail in mid-July. According to S.L.R.'s testimony, Wetter moved into the home in late July or early August; Wetter kept personal belongings in the home, did his laundry there, ate there, and received mail there; and Wetter and S.L.R. shared a bedroom. S.L.R. testified Wetter lived in the home "about three months, and then he found a place." However, when Wetter obtained new employment on August 17, he provided a different address to the employer. In December, when law enforcement was searching for Wetter, he was located at the address he previously provided to his employer. According to L.R.'s testimony, Wetter never lived in her home, he did not have a key to the home, and he did not keep any personal belongings there. Wetter's mother and step-mother both testified to their belief that Wetter stayed with S.L.R. upon his release from jail.

         Wetter and S.L.R. conceived a child on or about September 1. By November, S.L.R. did not "really hang out with [Wetter] too much" and she reported she did not know him very well. S.L.R. gave birth to the child in May 2016. Wetter and S.L.R. have never been married, nor have they ever held themselves out to be. Following the child's birth, Wetter was charged by trial information with sexual abuse in the third degree.[1] The matter proceeded to a bench trial. At the close of the State's evidence, Wetter moved for judgment of acquittal, arguing he and S.L.R. lived together at the time of the sex act. The court denied the motion. After trial, Wetter filed a written motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing the State failed to meet its burden to show he and S.L.R. were not cohabitating as husband and wife at the time the sex act occurred. See Iowa Code § 709.4(1)(b) (2015). The district court rejected the argument and entered a verdict finding Wetter guilty as charged. Wetter appealed following the imposition of sentence.

         On appeal, Wetter argues the district court misapplied the law in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal[2] at the close of evidence when it concluded there was sufficient evidence that he and S.L.R. were not cohabiting as husband and wife at the time of the underlying sex act.

         Appellate review of issues of statutory interpretation and sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenges is for correction of errors at law. State v. Watkins, 914 N.W.2d 827, 837 (Iowa 2018) (statutory interpretation); State v. Kelso-Christy, 911 N.W.2d 663, 666 (Iowa 2018) (sufficiency of the evidence). In assessing the sufficiency of the evidence, courts view "the evidence 'in the light most favorable to the State, including all reasonable inferences that may be fairly drawn from the evidence.'" State v. Ortiz, 905 N.W.2d 174, 180 (Iowa 2017) (quoting State v. Huser, 894 N.W.2d 472, 490 (Iowa 2017)). All evidence is considered, not just that of an inculpatory nature. See Huser, 894 N.W.2d at 490. "[W]e will uphold a verdict if substantial evidence supports it." State v. Wickes, 910 N.W.2d 554, 563 (Iowa 2018) (quoting State v. Ramirez, 895 N.W.2d 884, 890 (Iowa 2017)). "Evidence is substantial if, 'when viewed in the light most favorable to the State, it can convince a rational [factfinder] that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.'" Id. (quoting Ramirez, 895 N.W.2d at 890). Evidence is not rendered insubstantial merely because it might support a different conclusion; the only question is whether the evidence supports the finding actually made. See Brokaw v. Winfield-Mt. Union Cmty. Sch. Dist., 788 N.W.2d 386, 393 (Iowa 2010). In considering a sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenge, "[i]t is not the province of the court . . . to resolve conflicts in the evidence, to pass upon the credibility of witnesses, to determine the plausibility of explanations, or to weigh the evidence; such matters are for the [factfinder]." State v. Musser, 721 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Iowa 2006) (quoting State v. Williams, 695 N.W.2d 23, 28 (Iowa 2005)).

         Wetter was convicted of sexual abuse in the third degree in violation of Iowa Code section 709.4(1)(b)(3)(d), the elements of which include: (1) a sex act occurred between two persons, (2) the persons were not cohabiting as husband and wife at the time of the sex act, (3) the victim is fourteen or fifteen years of age, and (4) the perpetrator is four or more years older than the victim. Wetter only challenges the sufficiency of the evidence on the second element. He argues the participants to the sex act do not have to be married in order to be considered "cohabiting as husband and wife" within the meaning of the statute. Wetter points to State v. Kellogg in support of his position. See generally 542 N.W.2d 514 (Iowa 1996). In Kellogg, the supreme court interpreted the meaning of "family or household members" under Iowa Code section 236.2(2)(a), which defines domestic abuse. See id. at 516. The term's specific definition included "persons cohabiting." Id.; see also Iowa Code § 232.2(4). The court approved consideration of six nonexclusive factors in determining whether persons were "cohabiting" within the meaning of chapter 236:

1. Sexual relations between the parties while sharing the same living quarters.
2. Sharing of income or expenses.
3. Joint use or ownership of ...

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