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In re The Detention of Ruthers

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 7, 2018

IN RE THE DETENTION OF THOMAS G. RUTHERS, JR., Respondent-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Mahaska County, Daniel P. Wilson and Joel D. Yates (motion for summary judgment, motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and trial), Judges.

         The respondent appeals from the district court judgment finding him to be a sexually violent predator subject to civil commitment.

          Michael H. Adams of State Public Defender's Office, Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Tyler J. Buller, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Heard by Danilson, C.J., and Potterfield and Doyle, JJ.

          POTTERFIELD, JUDGE.

         Thomas Ruthers Jr. appeals from a judgment finding him to be a sexually violent predator (SVP) under Iowa Code chapter 229A (2011). Ruthers contends the district court should have granted his motions to dismiss and his motion for summary judgment because he was not presently confined for a "sexually violent offense," within the meaning of Iowa Code section 229A.2(10)(g), at the time the State filed its petition, and the court similarly erred in finding him to be a SVP.[1]

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         In September 2010, Ruthers was charged by trial information in Mahaska County with sexual abuse in the second degree. The charge was based on reports Ruthers sexually abused R.S. in 2007 when Ruthers helped R.S.'s mother move to Iowa. Ruthers was incarcerated in lieu of $35, 000 bail pending trial.

         In March 2012, shortly before a scheduled trial on the charge, Ruthers reached a plea agreement with the State providing that in exchange for his guilty plea to assault causing bodily injury to R.S., he would be sentenced to serve one year in the Mahaska County Jail with credit for one year already served. Under the plea agreement, the charge of sexual abuse in the second degree would be dismissed and Ruthers would be released from custody after he was sentenced.

         In the jail, on Friday March 16, Ruthers signed a written plea of guilty to the misdemeanor assault charge in an amended trial information, [2] waiving his right to presence at sentencing.

         The following Monday, at 2:57 p.m., Ruthers' written plea of guilty was filed. The court accepted the plea of guilty to the misdemeanor assault, entered judgment as agreed in the plea agreement in an order filed 3:40 p.m., and dismissed the charge of sexual abuse in the second degree with prejudice. The court ordered that mittimus not issue. Ruthers was not present in court.

         Sometime the same day, Ruthers was served in the jail with the State's petition for his commitment as a SVP, which was filed that afternoon at 1:10 p.m. He was not released as contemplated in the plea agreement but remained held in custody on the SVP petition.

         On March 22, the district court held a hearing pursuant to Iowa Code section 229A.5(2) and entered a probable cause finding on the SVP petition. Ruthers was brought to the hearing and argued for dismissal on the ground he was not "presently confined" for a sexually violent offense because he had pled guilty to a nonsexual assault of an adult female, B.S. The court denied Ruthers' motion for dismissal, and Ruthers remained incarcerated on the probable cause finding for more than four years.[3]

         The State, anticipating a problem based on Ruthers' motion, moved to set aside the guilty plea he had signed. On March 26, four days after the probable cause hearing and seven days after sentencing, the district court entered an order called "supplement" to its judgment, finding the specific factual basis for Ruthers' plea was "the defendant picked up the child victim, R.S., and threw him on the bed in a hard manner. The defendant caused R.S. to hit his head on the board, causing a bump."

         Ruthers then filed a motion in the criminal case seeking a determination of whether he had to register as a sex offender. In a hearing on Ruthers' motion, the court declined to reach the merits of the issue raised by Ruthers, but added:

[E]ven if I was going to make a determination on the merits, I wouldn't do anything else beyond what I've already done because [Iowa Code section] 708.15 indicates that the fact finder may make a determination that the offense was sexually motivated. I didn't make that determination. And I don't believe that 706.15 requires the court to make the determination that it was not sexually motivated.

(Emphasis added.) Prior to trial on the State's SVP petition, Ruthers filed a motion to dismiss, a motion for summary judgment, and a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The motions were denied.

         The SVP petition was tried to the court on August 19, 2017. In addition to expert testimony presented by the State and Ruthers, R.S. also testified. The court made the following findings of fact:

         The following have been established beyond a reasonable doubt:

(1) State's Exhibits 3 and 4 establish that Ruthers has been convicted of a [past] sexually violent offense.
(2) Between October 1, 2007, and November 30, 2007, on at least eight occasions Ruthers stayed in a hotel room with R.S. Only those two stayed in the hotel room on these occasions.
(3) R.S. was the same gender and age range of Ruthers's previous pedophilic interest. R.S. has behavioral and learning problems.
(4) Ruthers and R.S. slept in the same bed together while at the hotel room. No other adults were present on the occasions.
(5) R.S. on at least one occasion swam naked in the hotel room's hot tub. Ruthers would not allow R.S. to ...

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