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State v. Mathias

Supreme Court of Iowa

December 6, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.
JAMES L. MATHIAS, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Nancy S. Tabor (motion to suppress) and Henry W. Latham II (sentencing), Judges.

         A defendant appeals his conviction for carrying a firearm on the grounds of a school in violation of Iowa Code section 724.4B (2018).

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender (until withdrawal), and Ashley Stewart, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Linda J. Hines, Assistant Attorney General, Michael Walton, County Attorney, and Caleb J. Copley, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

          WIGGINS, CHIEF JUSTICE

         A defendant appeals his conviction for carrying a firearm on the grounds of a school in violation of Iowa Code section 724.4B (2018). He claims there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction because a school district-owned athletic complex that is not contiguous to a school building with classrooms does not qualify as the grounds of a school. He also claims that the district court erred in giving the jury an instruction defining "grounds of a school." On appeal, we find a school district-owned athletic complex that is not contiguous to a classroom building does qualify as grounds of a school under section 724.4B. We also find the jury instruction was proper. Accordingly, we affirm the defendant's conviction.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         On September 22, 2017, Davenport North High School and Davenport Central High School played a football game in the stadium at the Brady Street Athletic Complex (the Complex) in Davenport. The Davenport Community School District owns and operates the Complex. Davenport Central's outdoor facilities are all located at the Complex, and it uses the Complex for various school athletic events, including football, baseball, soccer, and track. Private schools, such as Davenport Assumption High School and St. Ambrose University, and nonschool entities also use the Complex.

         The Complex is located on the southeast corner of East 36th Street and North Brady Street in Davenport. Brady Street runs north/south, and 36th Street runs east/west. Although no traditional schoolhouse buildings are located at the Complex, the Davenport School District Athletic Director and a Davenport police officer, who is the police liaison to the Davenport public school system, testified that the Complex was treated the same as a schoolhouse building for purposes of a person possessing a firearm.

         On the southwest corner of the Complex, right off of Brady Street, is a digital sign surrounded by a brick structure. Above the digital sign are the words "Brady Street Athletic Complex," and below the digital sign are the words "Davenport Community Schools." The stadium itself has multiple signs that say "Davenport Community Schools," at least some of which are visible from the parking lots.

         There are two parking lots adjacent to the stadium and accessible from Brady Street: one immediately west of the stadium and east of Brady Street and one to the south of the stadium. People attending events at the stadium use both parking lots. On the evening of September 22, the south parking lot was full of cars.

         That evening, Davenport Police Captain Jamie Brown was in uniform but working security in an off-duty capacity at the football game. Around 9:00 p.m., an unidentified person informed him that a man was placing flyers on cars in the parking lot. Brown located James Mathias in the south parking lot, close to Brady Street, placing flyers on cars.

         Brown asked Mathias what he was doing, to which Mathias responded, "[F]reedom of speech." Brown noted that Mathias "[s]eemed to be kind of agitated or annoyed that [he] was there," so he then asked to see Mathias's identification. As Mathias was reaching back to retrieve his I.D. from his pocket, his shirt rose up and Brown saw a bulge on the side of Mathias's waist. He asked Mathias if he had a firearm. Mathias answered yes but said he had a permit, which he handed to Brown along with his I.D. Brown again asked Mathias why he was there, and Mathias repeated, "[F]reedom of speech."

         Brown did not arrest Mathias at that point. He thought he should first get Mathias off the property because of his demeanor coupled with the fact that he had a firearm. After Mathias was off the property, Brown would then deal with the legal matters. Brown also wanted to make sure that the law prohibiting the carrying of a firearm on the grounds of a school applied to the Complex. Brown told Mathias that he needed to leave. Mathias walked away from the Complex and did not return.

         In the following weeks, Brown spoke with the Scott County Attorney's Office about the incident. On February 19, 2018, the State charged Mathias with carrying a firearm on the grounds of a school in violation of Iowa Code section 724.4B.

         Mathias pled not guilty, and the case proceeded to a jury trial. At the close of the State's case and again at the close of all the evidence, Mathias moved for judgment of acquittal. He argued there was insufficient evidence that the parking lot was the grounds of a school. The court denied the motion.

         Before closing arguments, Mathias objected to Jury Instruction No. 18, which provided, "The phrase 'grounds of a school' may include recreational facilities, cultural facilities, or school buildings at which instruction is given." He objected to the definitional instruction "because there is no case law on it or there is no definition of that phrase provided in the statute." The court overruled the objection.

         The jury found Mathias guilty, and he appealed. We retained the appeal.

         II. Scope and Standards of Review.

         We review sufficiency-of-the-evidence claims for correction of errors at law. State v. Sanford, 814 N.W.2d 611, 615 (Iowa 2012). We will uphold the verdict if it is supported by substantial evidence. Id.; see State v. Truesdell, 679 N.W.2d 611, 615 (Iowa 2004). "Evidence is substantial if, 'when viewed in the light most favorable to the State, it can convince a rational jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.'" State v. Wickes, 910 N.W.2d 554, 563 (Iowa 2018) (quoting State v. Ramirez, 895 N.W.2d 884, 890 (Iowa 2017)).

         "We review challenges to jury instructions for correction of errors at law." State v. Albright, 925 N.W.2d 144, 157 (Iowa 2019). We evaluate whether the instruction at issue "accurately states the law and whether substantial evidence supports it." Id. Even when the instruction is erroneous, we will not reverse unless prejudice resulted. State v. Benson, 919 N.W.2d 237, 241 (Iowa 2018). "Prejudice results when jury instructions mislead the jury or materially misstate the law." Id. at 241- 42.

         III. Issues.

         The issues we must address on appeal are (1) whether the district court erred in denying Mathias's motion for judgment of acquittal and (2) whether the district court properly instructed the jury that the grounds of a school may include recreational and cultural facilities.

         IV. Whether the District Court Erred in Denying Mathias's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal.

         The Iowa Code provides in pertinent part,

A person who goes armed with, carries, or transports a firearm of any kind, whether concealed or not, on the grounds of a school commits a class "D" felony. For the purposes of this section, "school" means a public or nonpublic school as defined in section 280.2.

         Iowa Code § 724.4B(1) (first emphasis added). If the parking lot where Mathias was carrying a firearm is the grounds of a school, the district court correctly denied his motion for judgment of acquittal.

         A. The Grounds of a School.

         Under the State's interpretation, the grounds of a school include property owned and used by a public or nonpublic school for school athletics and events. Under Mathias's interpretation, the grounds of a school include only the classroom building and immediate surrounding land and do not include football stadiums and parking lots built on land that is not contiguous with the classroom building. Thus, we must determine if a school district-owned sports complex that is not contiguous to classroom buildings qualifies as grounds of a school under Iowa Code section 724.4B.

         "When interpreting a statute, we seek to ascertain the legislature's intent." State v. Lopez, 907 N.W.2d 112, 116 (Iowa 2018) (quoting Dakota, Minn. & E. R.R. v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 898 N.W.2d 127, 136 (Iowa 2017), overruled on other grounds by TSB Holdings, L.L.C. v. Bd. of Adjustment, 913 N.W.2d 1, 14 (Iowa 2018)). We determine legislative intent from the words chosen by the legislature, not what it should or might have said. Ramirez-Trujillo v. Quality Egg, L.L.C., 878 N.W.2d 759, 770 (Iowa 2016). We cannot allow legislative intent to change the meaning of a statute if the words used by the legislature will not allow for such a meaning. See Schadendorf v. Snap-On Tools Corp., 757 N.W.2d 330, 337 (Iowa 2008).

         We begin with the text of the statute. Lopez, 907 N.W.2d at 116. If the legislature chooses to define the term in a statute, that definition ordinarily binds us. State v. Pettijohn, 899 N.W.2d 1, 15 (Iowa 2017). When the legislature does not define the term, we look to the context in which the term appears and give it its ordinary and common meaning. Id. at 16; accord Iowa Code § 4.1(38); State v. Bower, 725 N.W.2d 435, 442 (Iowa 2006).

         Then we determine if the statute is ambiguous. Lopez, 907 N.W.2d at 116. Ambiguity occurs "if reasonable minds could differ or be uncertain as to the meaning of the statute." City of Waterloo v. Bainbridge, 749 N.W.2d 245, 248 (Iowa 2008). When the language is "plain, clear, and susceptible to only one meaning," we do not search for meaning beyond the particular terms. Id.; see Lopez, 907 N.W.2d at 117. If the language is ambiguous, however, we ...


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