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State v. Stephens

Court of Appeals of Iowa

June 5, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
NIKOLAS A. STEPHENS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Hardin County, Kurt J. Stoebe, Judge.

         Nikolas Stephens appeals his conviction of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death.

          David R. Johnson of Brinton, Bordwell & Johnson, Clarion, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, C.J., Bower, J., and Scott, S.J. [*]

          SCOTT, Senior Judge.

         A jury found Nikolas Stephens guilty of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death stemming from an incident in which Stephens collided with a pedestrian on a dark highway in the late-evening hours of September 12, 2015, while traveling in the neighborhood of sixty miles per hour. Stephens appeals his conviction, contending: (1) the court abused its discretion in excluding evidence the pedestrian victim was impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time of the collision, (2) the court erred in declining to provide instructions to the jury concerning the victim's negligence, and (3) the court abused its discretion in admitting the content of a text message as evidence because it was irrelevant and prejudicial.[1] We consider his arguments in turn.

         I. Victim Impairment

         Prior to trial, the State filed a motion in limine requesting any evidence concerning the alleged use of alcohol or drugs on the part of the victim on the evening in question to be excluded as irrelevant. Stephens filed a resistance, arguing the victim's intoxication "made it more likely that Stephens did not see him"

          because the victim may have been stumbling or otherwise ambulating in an intoxicated fashion on the roadway. The court heard the motion the morning of trial. The State generally argued the victim's impairment had no bearing on whether Stephens committed the elementary acts of the crime. Stephens argued "the sobriety or intoxication of the pedestrian makes" it more probable that he "literally walked right in front of a moving vehicle." The court granted the State's motion in limine. Stephens made two offers of proof during trial relative to evidence concerning the victim's intoxication, but the court declined to modify its ruling. Following the jury's guilty verdict, Stephens raised the issue in a motion for a new trial, arguing evidence of the victim's intoxication was relevant and exclusion of the same violated his right to a fair trial. The court overruled the motion.

         Stephens echoes his relevancy claims on appeal. We review district court rulings on relevance of evidence for an abuse of discretion, our most deferential standard of review. State v. Tipton, 897 N.W.2d 653, 691 (Iowa 2017); see State v. Roby, 897 N.W.2d 127, 137 (Iowa 2017). An abuse of discretion occurs when the court exercises its discretion on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable. Tipton, 897 N.W.2d at 691. Relevant evidence is generally admissible. Iowa R. Evid. 5.402. Evidence is relevant if (1) "[i]t has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence" and (2) "[t]he fact is of consequence in determining the action." Iowa R. Evid. 5.401.

         The jury was instructed the State was required to prove as an element of the crime that Stephens, at the time of the accident, "knew the accident resulted in injury or death to another person" or "knew the accident was of such a nature that a reasonable person would anticipate that injury or death had occurred to another person." Stephens essentially argues the alleged fact that the victim was impaired was relevant to whether Stephens saw him and knew or had reason to know he hit a person. However, as the State points out, Stephens "is unable to explain how [the victim's] level of intoxication could have made him easier [or] harder to recognize as a human." The video footage of the collision shows the victim to be walking upright in the roadway in the seconds before the collision. Upon the evidence presented at trial, we see no relevance of the victim's intoxication on the issue of whether Stephens knew or had reason to anticipate the accident resulted in death or injury to another. We therefore affirm the district court on this point.

         In any event, rulings excluding evidence only require reversal "if the error affects a substantial right of the party." Iowa R. Evid. 5.103(a).

To determine whether a substantial right of a party has been affected when a nonconstitutional error occurs, we employ harmless error analysis and ask: "Does it sufficiently appear that the rights of the complaining party have been injuriously affected by the ...

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