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State v. Spenner

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 21, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
MELVIN WILLIAM SPENCER III, Defendant-Appellant.

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

         Melvin Spencer appeals his conviction for attempted murder. AFFIRMED.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Melinda J. Nye, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Linda J. Hines, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

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

          DOYLE, JUDGE.

         Melvin Spencer appeals his conviction for attempted murder. Through appellate counsel, Spencer asserts the district court abused its discretion when it permitted the State to introduce certain evidence of drugs found near the scene of the alleged crime, arguing the evidence was irrelevant, overwhelmingly prejudicial compared to any probative value, not inextricably intertwined with evidence of the charged offense, and prejudicial to the point any error was not harmless. In a supplemental brief, Spencer-representing himself-makes numerous assertions. Upon our review, we affirm the district court's ruling, and we preserve for possible postconviction-relief proceedings Spencer's claims relating to ineffective assistance of trial.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         On patrol in the early morning hours of February 26, 2017, Woodbury County Deputy Sheriff Troy Tadlock attempted to stop a Lincoln MKZ for an equipment violation and a traffic violation. The car did not stop, and a high-speed chase ensued. At one point, the car stopped, and the driver of the Lincoln, Brittney Hood, hopped out of the vehicle and took off running. As Deputy Tadlock ran up to the car, it suddenly sped away. Deputy Tadlock then pursued Hood on foot and apprehended her.

         Meanwhile, another deputy in a separate patrol car, Deputy Michael Lenz, picked up the chase of the eluding Lincoln. The deputy, reaching speeds of 70 to 80 miles per hour, was unable to catch up with the car. The chase ended when the Lincoln swerved off the road into a ditch and got stuck in the snow. As Deputy Lenz pulled his patrol car behind the Lincoln, Melvin Spencer, clad in a red jacket, reached out from the driver's side window with a handgun and shot toward the deputy. The deputy ducked for cover down behind his car's dash. When the shots ended, he got out of the car and took a position behind its driver's door and began returning fire at Spencer. Spencer fired back and the deputy then took cover at the rear of his patrol car and continued to return fire. At some point, Spencer got out of the car on its passenger side and ran on foot away from the deputy. In the meantime, Deputy Lenz observed a second person in a black jacket next to the Lincoln's passenger's side. The deputy believed the second person was coming towards him and he fired at him. The second person sustained a gunshot wound and went down to the ground. The second person was then detained.

         A search for Spencer was performed by the SWAT team, and he was found approximately one half to three-quarters of a mile from where the Lincoln became stuck. Spencer was arrested. The area surrounding the Lincoln, as well as the path from the Lincoln to where Spencer was found, were searched. Outside the car, approximately thirty feet north, another gun, a black hat, and a baggie of about forty-three grams of cocaine were found in the snow. When a deputy got in the Lincoln to assist in the towing procedure, he observed a gun on the seat.

         Thereafter, Spencer was charged with attempted murder. Prior to trial, Spencer's trial counsel filed a motion in limine, seeking to exclude the cocaine from evidence. Spencer's counsel argued the evidence was irrelevant to the charges against Spencer, and even if it was relevant, its prejudicial effect outweighed any probative value. The State argued the evidence was relevant to Spencer's specific intent and motive, and it asserted the evidence was not overly prejudicial. The State also argued the evidence was inextricably intertwined with the crime charged. The district court denied the motion, finding the evidence was admissible for the purpose of showing Spencer's motive and intent, as related to the specific-intent element of the offense, and the court allowed the evidence to be admitted.

         At the jury trial, Spencer did not deny firing the gun; the chase and subsequent events were video-recorded by the patrol cars' cameras and the videos entered into evidence. Rather, Spencer's defense was that the State could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his intent in firing the gun was to kill the deputy. Spencer recognized that, based upon his discharge of the firearm, he was guilty of some crime of assault, but he suggested his intent in firing the gun was merely to escape the scene, "a panicked effort to get away."

         When the evidence concerning the cocaine was about to be offered during the trial, Spencer's counsel objected, and the district court overruled his objection. Law enforcement officers testified about finding a baggie containing a white powdery substance, and a laboratory criminologist testified the substance was determined to be cocaine. The prosecutor mentioned the cocaine in his closing argument.

         The jury found Spencer guilty as charged. Spencer was subsequently sentenced to an indeterminate term of twenty-five years. He now appeals.

         II. Discussion.

         On appeal, Spencer asserts, through his counsel, that the district court abused its discretion in admitting the evidence of cocaine at his trial. He argues the evidence was inadmissible and resulted in prejudicial error. Additionally, in a supplemental brief, Spencer-representing himself-makes several vague claims of error. We begin with the evidentiary challenge.

         A. Cocaine Evidence.

         "We review evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion." State v. Huston, 825 N.W.2d 531, 536 (Iowa 2013); see also State v. Newell, 710 N.W.2d 6, 18 (Iowa 2006) ("Rulings on the admissibility of prior-acts evidence are reviewed for an abuse of discretion."). "An abuse of discretion occurs when a district court exercises its discretion on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable." State v. Mulatillo, 907 N.W.2d 511, 518 (Iowa 2018). "A ground or reason is untenable when it is not supported by substantial evidence or when it is based on an erroneous application of the law." State v. Hoyman, 863 N.W.2d 1, 7 (Iowa 2015) (citation omitted). The deferential abuse-of-discretion standard of review recognizes that whether evidence should be admitted or excluded is generally "a judgment call on the part of the trial court." State v. Rodriquez, 636 N.W.2d 234, 240 (Iowa 2001); see also State v. Caples, 857 N.W.2d 641, 645 (Iowa Ct. App. 2014). "The defendant has the heavy burden of establishing the trial court abused its discretion in making that judgment call." Caples, 857 N.W.2d at 645. Moreover, "[e]ven if a trial court has abused its discretion, prejudice must be shown before" ...


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