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Supreme Court rejects unenforceable restitution award

stacks of coins
This was one of many in a line of Iowa Supreme Court cases that reversed sentencings that either did not correctly address restitution or surcharges. In this case, the Iowa Supreme Court made clear that restitution is not a blank check imposed on defendants. The award must be reasonably connected to the Defendant's criminal activity.

In State v. Roache, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed a court order granting to a car burglary victim restitution for a $1900 fine he agreed to pay a truck driving school for failing to return a text book the defendant stole out of his car. Justice Waterman, writing for the court, held that contract principles required more evidence linking the stated $1900 value of the paperback study guide to its actual worth and that the State failed to prove the amount of damage even though the defendant clearly caused the loss of the book.

Justice Waterman, writing for the court, said the decision to grant Defendant’s request for further review from an unfavorable Court of Appeals ruling “assuaged our sticker shock” at the “punitive” fine-based restitution award, holding that it was “unsupported by substantial evidence.”

In Roache, a Defendant pled guilty to burglarizing a car in a hotel parking lot and stealing from it a backpack that contained truck driving school materials for a student truck driver.

The study materials included a “pretrip inspection guide” that the court described as follows: “soft-covered, approximately six inches wide by eight or ten inches long, and between a quarter- and half-inch thick.”

Two weeks before the theft, the student driver signed a “check out agreement” in which he acknowledged that the study materials were merely on loan, that he was required to return them to complete the course, and that he would be required to be a “fine” if he did not return them.

Before he could return them, the Roache defendant burglarized his car and stole the backpack with the materials in them. Neither the backpack nor its contents were ever recovered.

After the theft, the student driver signed an amendment to his check out agreement that acknowledged liquidated damages of $1,900 for the loss of the guide. He didn’t pay it, citing the pending restitution hearing, but nevertheless completed his coursework and obtained a commercial driver’s license.

His insurance company denied that portion of the claim alleging a $1,900 loss because, according to the student driver, they didn’t think it was worth that much.

The Roache defendant argued that he didn’t cause the $1,900 loss—instead arguing that the student driver voluntarily entered into an amendment to his check out agreement to settle on $1,900 liquidated damages. The Court disagreed and held that the Roache defendant was the “cause” of the loss.

It wrote:

“We readily conclude that Roache’s actions were the factual cause of [the] loss of the study guide. But for the theft, the study guide would not have been lost, and [the student driver] would not have faced liability to [the truck driving school] for his failure to return the guide.”

The Roache defendant then argued that the loss was not within the “scope of liability” under principles of civil lawsuits. The Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that it was within the “scope of liability,” writing:

“We agree that a stolen item’s reasonable value falls within the scope of liability for theft.”

The Roache defendant then argued that the student truck driver incurred liability on his own—essentially arguing that he was at least partially at fault for not defending himself against the unreasonably punitive $1,900 “fine” for the stolen study guide. The defendant thus argued that these were “avoidable consequences.”

The court found that this was essentially a “comparative fault” analysis—not available to a defendant in a criminal case.

However, because the court agreed that principles of civil tort law applied to the loss, they examined whether the truck driving school would be able to recover from the student driver the $1,900 “fine” for the lost study guide. Concluding that it would not be able to do so under Iowa law, it found that the award was both unjustifiable under contract law and unenforceable as merely punitive. It further held that the State had failed to present substantial evidence that the $1,900 “fine” would have been awarded to the truck driving school as a remedy for lost intellectual property, having failed to present expert testimony on that subject.

In short, this appears to raise the bar on restitution awards. It reiterates that prosecutors may not depend on district court judges to “rubber stamp” restitution awards and that defendants may have a stake in challenging same.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Roache case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Benton, Jones, or other Iowa county or community, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC for a free initial consultation. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that no attorney-client relationship is established by sending to a lawyer information over the Internet.

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