top of page
  • David A. Cmelik Law PLC

Iowa Supreme Court affirms heroin death conviction

inside an ambulance

On March 1, 2019, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the voluntary manslaughter conviction of a defendant who was also convicted of delivery of heroin. The defendant argued on appeal that the two crimes “merged,” or, were necessarily part of the same offense and that he should not have been convicted of both crimes. This was, in part, a double jeopardy challenge.

At trial in State v. Travis West, the defendant challenged sufficiency of the evidence to convict him, improper admission of evidence, and the double jeopardy issue. A jury convicted him of both involuntary manslaughter and delivery.

On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals, the Iowa Supreme Court chose to address only this double jeopardy question and declined to review the other holdings of the next highest appeal court beneath the supreme court, essentially, it said, because it has ultimate discretion to do so.

At issue in the case was whether the West defendant's conduct caused an alleged heroin and ethanol overdose death. The Court noted that the jury could have plausibly believed the following facts: the defendant knew the decedent had previously overdosed because the defendant drove the user to the hospital in 2014, that he gave her more heroin in 2015, and that she died 30 minutes later after ingesting it. It further recounted that in 2015, phone records revealed the decedent had talked to the defendant at 2:49 AM on the morning of her death—and that the defendant then began a “series” of calls to his heroin supplier, “Snap,” in Des Moines.

According to the Supreme Court opinion, the defendant and the decedent went to get some food and returned to the defendant’s apartment. The defendant’s brother later found the decedent slumped over in a bathtub. The defendant called 911. An ambulance arrived and took the user to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. The Supreme Court opinion recounted that medical evidence at trial indicated she would have been “fine” without the heroin and that heroin ingested within 30 minutes of her death likely killed her.

The court noted that there were six additional calls from the defendant to his supplier after the 911 call. The jury convicted the defendant of delivery and involuntary manslaughter.

Under Iowa Code § 701.9, “[n]o person shall be convicted of a public offense which is necessarily included in another public offense of which the person is convicted.” The statute goes on to state that if the jury enters verdicts of guilty in two included offenses, the court “shall enter judgment of guilty of the greater offenses only.” The defendant in this case said the district court did not follow Iowa Code § 701.9—and essentially convicted him of both crimes that were part of one another.

Justice Appel, writing for the court, engaged in an exhaustive history of double jeopardy caselaw, noting that there had been a tug of war at the United States Supreme Court among decisions that seemed to “trend away” from strict-elements analysis double jeopardy findings and toward acceptably “cumulative” penalties if the Legislature intends for them.

“The bottom line is that the double jeopardy cases of the United States Supreme Court have moved away from heavy reliance on the Blockburger elements test and now give greater emphasis to legislative intent in determining whether the state may impose multiple punishments on a defendant for crimes arising out of the same transaction,” wrote the Justice Appel.

Justice Appel then wrote that Iowa caselaw has “not been linear” on the subject, either. However, the Court settled on a “two step approach” that examines whether the elements of one offense are nested in the other and whether the Legislature intended cumulative penalties.

“In Halliburton and Lewis, we determined that while the legal elements test is a useful tool, it is not determinative [citations omitted] . . . Halliburton and Lewis both stand for the proposition that where the greater offense has a penalty that is not in excess of the lesser included offense, a legislative intent to permit multiple punishments arises.”

Justice Appel opined that "if the offenses merged, a person convicted of both involuntary manslaughter by public offense and delivery of a controlled substance would receive a lesser sentence than a defendant convicted solely of delivery of a controlled substance." The Legislature did not intend such a result, he wrote.

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

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

bottom of page