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Jailhouse lawyer wins appeal filed before law barring self-pleading takes effect

The Iowa Court of Appeals this month sent back to the lower court for resentencing State v Krone, a criminal appeal holding that an informal sentencing—one without a transcript—that also lacked a written guilty plea entitled the defendant to a new sentencing. In Krone, the lower criminal sentencing court referred to a plea agreement in its order of disposition, stating that there were “facts shown to the court” including a “plea agreement.” However, the appeals court wrote that no plea agreement for the criminal case existed in the court file for it to review. For this reason, the court reasoned, and the State conceded, it needed to be sent back and done correctly.

This criminal appeal is unusual because it is one of the last cases that allows a defendant to be co-counsel with his defense attorney. A new Iowa law took effect July 1, 2019, forbidding defendants from supplementing their lawyer’s filings and briefs. Appellants, particularly prison inmates, have become skilled jailhouse lawyers, drafting their own filings, including supplemental briefs, when their defense attorneys did not advance their arguments. The new law sought to end this practice. However, Krone’s appeal was on file before the new law took effect. So the court allowed one of the last defendants to make his own case, even though his own lawyer did not advance the same arguments. The State of Iowa objected, stating this is what the new law sought to prevent.

The decision laid out the facts as follows: municipal police approached a black Ford explorer officers say was parked in the full width of an alley just after midnight. When they made contact with the occupant, officers claim they immediately observed a “small bag of crystal substance” that later field tested positive for .4 g methamphetamine.

The Krone defendant later pled guilty in writing to simple meth possession. The judge took up the written guilty plea and sentenced the defendant to 180 days, but suspended 177 days of the sentence, with 3 days to serve and almost 10 hours of credit for time already served. Instead of the 3 days jail, the judge also said the defendant could serve 10 days on electronic monitoring. The judge placed the defendant on probation for one year to enforce the suspended jail sentence.

In the sentencing court’s order, the judge explained that the sentence was “based on the facts shown to the court, the plea agreement, presentence investigation or NCIC criminal history report and/or for reasons of deterrence” (emphasis added). However, the plea agreement was never placed in the court record and no court reporter transcribed the hearing.

After sentence was imposed, the defendant began writing letters to the court. He said he was “never able to contest my sentence for a deferred sentence” and that he believed he had not signed a document that would be submitted to the court. Later, he alternatively stated that the guilty plea was a forgery. In addition, he said that he was concerned about employment and his driver’s license—and that he believed that his conviction had already cost him three jobs. The district court took no action on the defendant’s letters. The defendant kept writing them—now to the appellate courts since his case was on appeal—and asked for the case to be remanded to the district court for a resentencing. He reiterated that his plea was involuntary and that he wanted to withdraw it because he was not consulted. He argued he was “kept in the dark pretty much through this whole ordeal.” He wrote a new letter that he had reviewed the body cam and believed the evidence was planted. He wrote his own supplemental brief and submitted it to the court.

On July 1, 2019, a new law took effect that bars defendants from submitting pleadings to the court if they are represented by counsel. The appeals court found that, since the Iowa Supreme Court decided State v. Macke, 933 N.W.2d 226, 228 (Iowa 2019), it appeared that appeals pending on July 1, 2019, were exempt from the new prohibition. The appellate court thus held it could apply the same rule to the defendant in Krone.

It tabled the Krone defendant’s most serious accusations about forgery of his guilty plea and allegedly planted evidence until a more thorough record could be established. However, the appellate court was troubled by the absence of any plea agreement in the record.

“Without a plea agreement, we have no clue what the recommendations were,” wrote the court.

The appellate court noted that the State conceded this fact alone entitled the defendant to a resentencing. The State, however, argued that the defendant was prohibited from making the argument because his lawyer had not made it for him, thus triggering the new law against self-pleadings. The appellate court disagreed in this one case, because the Krone defendant’s appeal was pending on July 1, 2019. Therefore, it reasoned, the new law did not apply and he could make that argument without his lawyer making the same argument. It therefore remanded for resentencing.

David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Krone case. More appeals could occur in this case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a crime in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact David A. Cmelik for a free initial consult. 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 privilege.

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