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Ehler v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

September 11, 2019

RICHARD JOSEPH EHLER, Applicant-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Warren County, Thomas P. Murphy, Judge.

         Richard Ehler appeals the dismissal of his application for postconviction relief.

          George B. Jones of George B. Jones, PLLC, Lamoni, for appellant.

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

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Potterfield and Tabor, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         Criminal defense attorneys have a material duty to ensure the State follows the speedy-trial rule.[1] The State did not bring Richard Ehler to trial within one year of his arraignment as mandated by Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.33(2)(c). Ehler's trial counsel moved to dismiss but failed to cite a key authority to the district court.[2] After the district court denied the motion to dismiss and the supreme court declined to hear Ehler's case before final judgment, counsel advised Ehler to accept a favorable plea offer.

         In his postconviction-relief action, Ehler alleged his plea was involuntary because trial counsel was ineffective. The district court denied Ehler's application, holding (1) trial counsel appropriately raised the speedy-trial issue and (2) Ehler did not show but for counsel's errors he would have turned down the plea offer and insisted on going to trial. On appeal, Ehler reiterates trial counsel's responsibility:

Counsel had a duty to properly and fully evaluate the merits of the speedy trial issue, and to advise Ehler that the trial court was wrong in its denial of the motion to dismiss. Had counsel more fully researched the applicable case law, counsel would have been aware of clear precedent in Ehler's favor, demonstrating that, under the facts present in this case, there was no good cause for the State's failure to bring him to trial within one year of arraignment.

         Because no good cause existed for the State's failure to comply with the speedy-trial rule, counsel's advice was not within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases. Thus we reverse and remand for dismissal.

         I. Case History

         A. Criminal Proceedings

         Ehler's ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim hinges on the violation of his one-year speedy-trial right. For that reason, we include this detailed chronology of events in Ehler's criminal case:

August 2013 8/1/2013 The State filed criminal complaints, alleging Ehler committed three counts of sexual abuse in the third degree.
8/12/2013 The State filed its trial information.
8/19/2013 During a bond-review hearing, the district court reduced Ehler’s bond and set a pretrial conference for September 23, 2013.
8/19/2013 Defense counsel filed a written arraignment, plea of not guilty, and waiver of Ehler’s ninety-day speedy-trial right under Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.33(2)(b).
8/23/2013 Defense counsel filed a motion to produce.
September 2013 9/23/2013 The court rescheduled the pretrial conference date for October 7, 2013.
October 2013

November 2013 11/4/2013 The court rescheduled the pretrial conference date for December 2, 2013.
December 2013 12/2/2013 The court rescheduled the pretrial conference date for January 27, 2014 and set trial for April 2, 2014.
January 2014

February 2014 2/26/2014 The prosecutor subpoenaed a witness for deposition on March 19, 2014.
March 2014 3/19/2014 Defense counsel deposed two witnesses.
3/20/2014 Defense counsel emailed the prosecutor suggesting a plea to lesser charges.
3/20/2014 That same afternoon, defense counsel again emailed the prosecutor asking him to disregard the previous message, saying he did not have “authority to propose any plea at this time.”
April 2014 4/1/2014 Defense counsel emailed the prosecutor, saying: “It looks like Ehler is still on the trial docket. Do you need me to file a motion, unresisted, and if so is there a judge to rule on it around? Also is the court adm aware of the situation? I thought it was already continued.”
4/11/2014 The prosecutor emailed defense counsel proposing six trial dates: May 14, 2014; May 28, 2014; June 18, 2014; June 25, 2014; July 23, 2014; and July 30, 2014. The prosecutor concluded: “I will get an order signed after I hear back from you.”
4/14/2014 Defense counsel emailed the prosecutor to discuss the possibility of a plea deal but did not address the proposed trial dates.
4/15/2014 Defense counsel emailed the prosecutor, saying: “Please call me regarding the proposed trial dates. Thanks.”
4/25/2014 Defense counsel emailed the prosecutor, saying: “Several things. First, attached is [Ehler’s] Witness List, and the first Motion in Limine. I requested for you to call me about the trial date on this . . . and still would like to talk to you. Next, I would like a formal answer to my Motion to Produce.”
4/29/2014 Defense counsel again emailed the prosecutor, saying: “Attached is the second discovery motion. Would you make a written response to both please? We also need to tal[k] about court dates.”
May 2014 5/1/2014 Defense counsel filed a second motion to produce.
5/6/2014 The court set a hearing on the motion to produce for May 19, 2014.
5/9/2014 Defense counsel filed Ehler’s witness list and a combined motion in limine/motion to suppress.
5/22/2014 Defense counsel emailed the prosecutor asking for a copy of a discovery packet the prosecutor had showed him.
June 2014

July 2014

August 2014 8/19/2014 One-year speedy-trial deadline.
September 2014 9/8/2014 The court scheduled a pretrial conference for September 15, 2014.

         In October 2014, defense counsel moved to dismiss the prosecution based on the State's failure to bring Ehler to trial within one year. The motion asserted Ehler "had not caused any delay that would come close to justifying the State's actions." Defense counsel highlighted the "good cause" standard for extending the trial beyond the one-year deadline. He then asserted good cause was "obviously nonexistent in this case." Defense counsel alleged he had been "diligent and professional in handling the matter." In his view, the prosecutor had not reciprocated that courtesy-leaving phone calls unreturned.

         For his legal argument, defense counsel cited Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.33(2) and two cases: State v. Miller, 637 N.W.2d 201');">637 N.W.2d 201 (Iowa 2001), and State v. Herrmann, No. 06-1829, 2007 WL 3376881 (Iowa Ct. App. Nov. 15, 2007).

         The motion argued dismissal is required under the rule unless the defendant waived speedy trial, the delay is attributable to the defendant, or other "good cause" exists for the delay. See Miller, 637 N.W.2d at 204. The motion also quoted Herrmann for the proposition:

"Once the one-year period has expired the State must show either a waiver on the part of the defendant or good cause for the delay." . . . [G]ood cause focuses on only one factor, the reason for the delay. The State's burden of demonstrating good cause is a heavy one.

Herrmann, 2007 WL 3376881, at *2 (citations omitted) (quoting State v. Mary, 401 N.W.2d 239, 241 (Iowa Ct. App. 1999)).

         In resisting dismissal, the State blamed Ehler for seeking to continue the pretrial conferences scheduled for late 2013 and early 2014 and asking to reschedule the April 2014 trial date. The State also noted the defense filed two motions to produce and a combined motion to suppress and motion in limine. But the State acknowledged, "The lack of resetting went unnoticed until early September when the State realized that this matter had fallen off the [c]ourt's docket and the State requested the [c]ourt set the matter back on the docket."

         The district court denied Ehler's motion to dismiss, largely adopting the State's argument:

[Ehler] participated in the delay of the timely prosecution of this matter through repeated [p]retrial [c]onferences, the taking of depositions outside the timelines outlined in Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.13(6) . . ., filing of a [m]otion to [s]uppress outside the timelines outlined in 2.11(4) . . ., and the continuation of the April 2, 2014 trial date. [Ehler] acquiesced in the delay and should not profit from the State's failure to obtain an extension of the time period for trial.

         That ruling "shocked" defense counsel, according to his postconviction testimony. Counsel persisted in advancing Ehler's speedy-trial claim, asking our supreme court to grant discretionary review. Here's how defense counsel framed the issue:

Whether delay can be attributed to [Ehler] at early stages of the case, because of routine pretrial conference continuances and the scheduling and taking of depositions, despite obvious and flagrant prosecutorial indifference from April 1, 2014, until May 22, 2014, leading up to the expiration of the one year speedy trial deadline on August 14, 2014.

         On top of that, the application impugned the district court's reliance on pretrial discovery matters and motion practice in attributing the delay to Ehler. The application cited just one authority-Rule 2.33(2)(c). The supreme court denied discretionary review. And the district court set Ehler's case for trial.

         Before the trial date, the State offered to dismiss two counts of sexual abuse in the third degree in exchange for Ehler's guilty plea to the remaining count.

         Feeling defeated, defense counsel encouraged Ehler to accept the State's plea offer. As counsel explained during the postconviction hearing:

I'm sure I would have told Mr. Ehler, like I would have told anybody, that the supreme court doesn't usually reverse on cases like this. And there was at least a prima facie case I didn't agree with of delay attributable to the defendant, . . . and I would have told Mr. Ehler, like I would have told him if the case ...

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