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Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board Complainant v. Sears

Supreme Court of Iowa

September 6, 2019


          On review of the report of the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission.

         The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board filed a complaint alleging the attorney violated the rule of professional conduct regarding commission of a criminal act.

          Tara van Brederode and Crystal W. Rink, Des Moines, for complainant.

          Johnathan Lee Sears, Ankeny, pro se.


         The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board (Board) charged an Iowa attorney with violations of Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:8.4(b) (commission of a criminal act) in connection with convictions for operating while intoxicated (OWI), domestic abuse assault causing bodily injury, and several instances of violating a no-contact order. After a hearing, the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission found the alleged violations had occurred and recommended the attorney be suspended for one year without the possibility of early reinstatement.

         Upon our de novo review, we conclude the attorney violated rule 32:8.4(b) as alleged in counts I, II, and III. We order that his license be suspended indefinitely with no possibility of reinstatement for two years.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Johnathan Sears is an attorney admitted to the Iowa bar in September of 2017. He is a partner at the Des Moines law firm of Clark & Sears Law. Five months after his admittance, on February 6, 2018, law enforcement located Sears on a highway in Polk County pushing a heavily damaged, disabled vehicle. Sears indicated he rear-ended an unknown vehicle; he did not understand where he was or where the accident took place. Law enforcement located an open bottle of vodka in the back seat of Sears's car. After failing field sobriety tests, Sears consented to a breath test, which returned a result of 0.181 blood alcohol concentration. He was then arrested for OWI in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2 (2018).

         On June 13, Sears pled guilty to OWI, first offense. The sentencing court placed Sears on probation for one year. The terms of Sears's probation prohibited alcohol use, forbade the possession of firearms, and mandated compliance with state and federal laws. The sentencing court also required Sears to cooperate with and complete the recommendations of his substance abuse evaluation. That evaluation recommended Sears complete extended outpatient treatment and attend weekly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. Sears failed to begin the recommended treatment within thirty days of his sentencing and, as a result, violated the sentencing court's order with respect to the terms of his probation. This failure prompted a September 24 order instructing Sears to obtain a new substance abuse evaluation.

         About two weeks later, on October 7, West Des Moines police received a 911 call from Jane Doe.[1] The 911 call revealed a panicked Doe explaining, "[M]y ex . . . is trying to break in" and "he was here and he attacked me and then I got him to leave, and then he came back." As it turns out, Doe is Sears's former spouse. Apparently, Doe and Sears divorced in May but remained intimate.

         The facts leading to the 911 call on October 7 are not disputed. Doe and Sears spent that day at Doe's apartment. Doe did not see Sears consume alcohol, but around 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., she could smell it on him. Doe was in her bedroom when she heard Sears, who was in a different room, pull the slide on a handgun she owned. Sears entered Doe's bedroom with the handgun and asked how to disassemble it. Neither Doe nor Sears could figure out how to disassemble the handgun, and Sears left the bedroom with the gun. Worried about Sears, Doe walked to the living room to speak with him. Sears then asked Doe if he could use the handgun to kill himself. Doe refused.

         At some point, Sears threw the handgun at Doe along with the accompanying bullets. Doe collected the bullets, picked up the handgun, proceeded to her bedroom, and hid the handgun under her mattress. Sears entered the bedroom and asked for the handgun, but Doe again refused. This refusal evidently upset Sears. Sears proceeded to grab Doe's hair and slam her to the ground. With her back against the ground, Sears positioned his body on top of Doe, pinning her arms with his legs. At this point, Sears slammed Doe's head against the ground and screamed at her. Doe's head was slammed four or five times and continued to such an extent that her vision began to "black out." At this point, Doe relented and told Sears the location of the handgun.

         Sears then left the bedroom with the handgun. He returned looking for the bullets, and Doe was able to grab the handgun from Sears. Eventually, Sears returned to the bedroom and apologized to Doe. Doe told Sears to leave, and after asking Sears multiple times, he left the apartment. Doe locked her apartment door and returned to her bedroom. A short time later, Doe heard Sears pounding on her apartment door, as though he was "trying to break it open." In fact, Doe testified Sears's pounding cracked her doorframe. At this time, Doe called 911 because she was afraid Sears "was going to break in and hurt [her]." During the 911 call, Sears left the apartment door for a moment, but returned to Doe's door and continued to pound.

         Three West Des Moines police officers were dispatched to Doe's apartment complex at approximately 10:21 p.m. Officer Brandon Condon was first on the scene and noticed a man walking out of the complex. The man identified himself as John, and Officer Condon observed that he had bloodshot, watery eyes; slurred speech; a strong odor of alcoholic beverages; and impaired balance. Officer Condon identified the man as Sears. Upon questioning, Sears admitted to drinking alcohol that night. Sears also admitted to Officer Condon that it was a possibility someone was injured in a domestic fight. Sears consented to a search of his cell phone. Officer Condon viewed several text messages sent by Sears to his current wife. The texts included the following content:

At 10:04:30 PM, Sears texted, "I'm drunk as fuck."
At 10:04:38 PM, Sears texted, "7 have I gun."
At 10:05:00 PM, Sears texted, "And I'm leaving her 7."
At 10:05:37 PM, Sears texted, "Let this make you happy."
At 10:06:31 PM, Sears texted, "I've assaulted her."
At 10:07:34 PM, Sears texted, "I've threatened to kill myself. I can't so ...

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