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State v. Myers

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 8, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Floyd County, Peter B. Newell, District Associate Judge.

         Appellant appeals from a judgment and sentence for operating a motor vehicle with the presence of a controlled substance in his person.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Vidhya K. Reddy, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Linda J. Hines, Assistant Attorney General, Rachel Ginbey, County Attorney, and Randall Tilton, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

          CADY, Chief Justice.

         In this appeal, we must decide if a conviction for the crime of operating a motor vehicle while having any amount of a controlled substance in a person as measured by the person's urine can be based on an initial laboratory test that was positive for controlled substances. We conclude an initial test is insufficient under the facts of this case to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We vacate the decision of the court of appeals, reverse the judgment and sentence of the district court, and remand the case to the district court for dismissal of the charge.

         I. Factual Background & Proceedings.

         The facts of this case resulted in the prosecution and conviction of Jeffrey Myers for the crime broadly referred to as operating while intoxicated (OWI). On March 12, 2016, around 1 a.m., Myers was operating a motor vehicle in Charles City. A police officer, Cory Van Horn, observed the vehicle and noticed the taillights were not illuminated. Officer Van Horn stopped the vehicle. After he informed Myers of the reason for the stop, Myers flipped a switch in the car's interior, which illuminated the lights. Officer Van Horn also noticed Myers was sweating profusely.

         Officer Van Horn placed Myers in the passenger seat of his patrol car. He checked Myers's eyes and noticed that they were watery and bloodshot and that he had difficulty keeping them open. Additionally he noted that Myers's eyes dilated very little upon exposure to his flashlight and that the back of Myers's tongue was a brownish green color. Another officer arrived at the scene to assist Officer Van Horn with the remainder of the stop.

         Officer Van Horn administered several field sobriety tests, including horizontal gaze nystagmus, lack of convergence, walk and turn, one leg stand, and the modified Romberg test. The test results prompted Officer Van Horn to ask Myers if he had "taken" anything that night. Myers replied he had taken cold medicine. The officers concluded Myers was under the influence of a drug and arrested him. Myers consented to the submission of a urine specimen for testing. An initial test of the urine sample by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) laboratory revealed detectable levels of amphetamines and marijuana.

         On March 30, 2016, the State charged Myers by trial information with OWI in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2 (2016).[1] The minutes of testimony included the official toxicology report from the DCI laboratory. The positive screen for amphetamines was 589 ng/ml, and the positive screen for marijuana metabolites was 62 ng/ml.[2] The report stated the positive screens "indicate[] the possible presence" of substances at levels equal to or more than the levels established in the Iowa Administrative Code. The document concluded by indicating a report on the positive screens "to confirm the presence of specific drugs will follow." The minutes of testimony, however, did not include a follow-up report.

         On June 6, Myers filed a motion to suppress. He argued his taillights were illuminated and there was no basis to justify the stop. At the suppression hearing, the State submitted a copy of Officer Van Horn's dash cam video recordings. The district court denied the motion to suppress. It concluded the taillights were not illuminated and the stop was justified.

         The case proceeded to a bench trial on the minutes of testimony. The district court found Myers guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In making this finding on the record, the court explained,

All right. Mr. Myers, basically the State has two things that they have to prove in order to establish this offense. The first is that you were driving or operating a motor vehicle. . . . That element has been established. The second element is at the time you were operating a motor vehicle, you had a detectable level of a controlled substance in your blood stream. They could also prove you were under the influence of something. In this case, you did agree to provide a urine sample. The urine sample was positive for both marijuana metabolites and for amphetamines; and so, those are the elements that the State has to establish, and I believe that the State has established those elements beyond a reasonable doubt.

         It then entered a written finding that the minutes of testimony established beyond a reasonable doubt that Myers committed all the elements of OWI in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2. It did not designate the specific subsection. The court imposed the mandatory minimum penalties, including two days in jail and a fine of $1250.

         Myers appealed. He claimed (1) the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress because there was no probable cause to support the stop and (2) the evidence was insufficient to establish the presence of a controlled substance in his system. Specifically, he argued the initial screen test only found the "possible presence" of drugs not their actual presence. He argued a confirmatory test should have been done on his urine to verify the presence of controlled substances. Without a confirmatory test, he claims the evidence in the minutes of testimony was insufficient to support a finding of guilt.

         In response, the State argued the results of the laboratory test included in the minutes of testimony were sufficient to support the conviction. Alternatively, it asserted the lab report did measure an amount of a controlled substance in the urine as required under the statute and, combined with other circumstantial evidence of impairment described in the minutes of testimony, constitutes sufficient evidence of guilt.

         We transferred the case to the court of appeals. It found the district court properly denied Myers's suppression motion. It also found there was no legal requirement for a confirmatory test and concluded that the detectable amounts of controlled substances by the initial test provided sufficient evidence to support a conviction for OWI. Myers sought, and we granted, further review.

         On further review, we only address the issue of whether or not the minutes of testimony in this case provided sufficient evidence to support a conviction for OWI. In re Marriage of Schenkelberg, 824 N.W.2d 481, 483 (Iowa 2012) ("[W]e have the discretion to review all or part of the issues raised on appeal or in the application for further review."). We do not address the claim of error based on the denial of the motion to suppress.

         II. Scope of Review.

         We review a claim of insufficient evidence in a bench trial just as we do in a jury trial. State v. Weaver, 608 N.W.2d 797, 803 (Iowa 2000). "If the verdict is supported by substantial evidence, we will affirm." Id. We determine whether substantial evidence supports the verdict by reviewing "all the evidence and the record in the light most favorable to the trial court's decision." State v. Hearn, 797 N.W.2d 577, 580 (Iowa 2011). Finally, our review of challenges to the sufficiency of evidence is for errors at law because "the question . . . is ...

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