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Iowa Supreme Court overturns 3X habitual offender drunk driver sentence calling it illegal

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Courts are often called in to resolve disputes between competing statutes. Here, the Court decided that the OWI law exclusively determined the penalty for a third time offender and not the habitual violator enhancement statute for someone with 2 or more felony convictions.

In Noll v. Iowa District Court for Muscatine County, the Iowa Supreme Court today reversed what it called an illegally enhanced sentence for an Operating While Intoxicated, or, OWI, Third Offender who also had at least two prior felony convictions.

Under Iowa Code § 902.8 et seq, a third time offender can be subjected to a habitual violator enhancement that triples the maximum sentence of five years up to a maximum 15 years and imposes a mandatory minimum three year sentence that does not otherwise exist for other OWI offenders.

Because the Noll defendant had two prior felonies and was convicted of a felony OWI-3rd following a jury trial, the sentencing judge imposed the habitual violator enhancement and sentenced him to 15 years in prison with a mandatory minimum three years. The defendant challenged the sentence as illegal, stating that the Legislature imposed a mandatory minimum of 30 days in Chapter 321J-- therefore trumping the mandatory minimums and maximums of the habitual offender statute. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed, citing to the legislative and juridical history of the statute.

The Iowa Supreme Court noted that Iowa Code Chapters 321J and 902 are at odds and that the language the Legislature used in the drunk driving statute imposed the only legal sentence—foreclosing the possibility of treating drunk drivers as habitual offenders under Chapter 902. In effect, it wrote that Chapter 902 cannot at present be applied to the current language of Iowa Code Chapter 321J. To render this decision, it recited the history of the conflict between the judicial and legislative branches on the subject.

In an earlier case, the Iowa Supreme Court had held that there is no mandatory minimum when the court imposes an indeterminate prison sentence. Instead, it earlier held, the board of parole decides how long inmates stay in prison. The Iowa Legislature, however, disagreed, and amended the statute to impose a 30-day jail sentence as a mandatory minimum in felony third offense drunk driving cases. Therefore, the 30-day jail minimum and the 3-year habitual offender minimum are at odds.

“On the merits, we find Iowa Code section 321J.2(5) (2011) prescribes the maximum and minimum sentence for OWI, third and subsequent offenses. Thus, the habitual offender provisions in sections 902.8 and 902.9 do not apply to OWI, third and subsequent offenses,” wrote Justice Wiggins.

Using the “plain and ordinary” of the words the Legislature used, the Court said that it could not find any other way, even if the Legislature intended to do something else.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Noll decision.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for OWI in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC, for a free initial consultation. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending information to a lawyer over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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