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Cedar Rapids Criminal Lawyer: Iowa high court reverses check writing case


Iowa high court reverses jury conviction for check writing theft. Court says estranged spouse wrote checks without authorization but could not be proved to have knowledge they would be rejected.

The Iowa Supreme Court has reversed for dismissal State v. Kamie Jo Schiebout. In the Schiebout case, the State charged the defendant with violating Iowa Code § 714.1(6), which criminalizes check writing “if the person knows that such check…will not be paid when presented.” Justice McDermott, writing for the Court, noted that the defendant wrote seven checks—all of which were paid when presented. The jury convicted and the defendant moved for judgment of acquittal arguing the jury could not possibly find that she knew the checks would be rejected when they were not. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed, reversing the jury conviction for absolute dismissal.

“The text of section 714.1(6) forbids knowingly presenting a check that will not be paid when presented. Evidence that [defendant] presented checks without authorization is, without more, insufficient to establish this particular crime.”

In Schiebout, the Iowa Supreme Court recited the facts as follows: the defendant was married to the treasurer of a local chapter of Ducks Unlimited. She did not have authority to write checks while her husband did have such authority. Her husband kept the checkbook in the basement of the marital home before their separation. The defendant allegedly wrote a series of checks on the chapter’s account signing her own name on each check.

The bank honored all of the checks the Schiebout defendant wrote—even those presented after the account became overdrawn, according to the opinion. The bank mailed overdraft notices to the treasurer but he did not open any of them. The bank reached him by phone and he recognized his estranged wife’s signature. He reported the matter to the police. Prosecution resulted.

The Schiebout defense was that she “grabbed the wrong checkbook.” As a result, it appears she was not charged with forgery, e.g., presenting an instrument that was not what it purported to be with the intent to defraud. She signed her own name—she did not forge her estranged husband’s signature.

At trial, the State asked the jury to aggregate the value of all of the checks as part of a single criminal scheme. The Schiebout defendant’s estranged husband identified his wife’s signature on the checks.

At the close of evidence, the defendant moved for judgment of acquittal stating that no jury could find her guilty of the offense charged because it did not fit the alleged crime. The trial court denied the motion and the jury convicted the defendant of Theft in the Second Degree.

The Iowa Supreme Court reasoned:

“Any such claimed knowledge by Schiebout clashes with the reality that the bank did in fact pay each of the checks. That the bank paid the checks when presented is not determinative on the issue of Schiebout’s knowledge. But there was no other sufficient evidence presented from which to conclude Schiebout knew—in this case, contrary to fact—that the bank would refuse payment when she presented the checks. The statements Schiebout made that the checks were “her husband’s” or that she “grabbed the wrong checkbook” at best show knowledge she lacked authorization on the account, not that she knew the bank wouldn’t pay the checks when she presented them.”

Justice McDermott engage in an exhaustive analysis of the theft statute, noting that a national model for the theft statute contains language that the Iowa Legislature stripped out: that a defendant may be presumed to know that a check will be rejected if they had no authority to write it.

The Iowa Supreme Court therefore remanded for dismissal and also ordered that she cannot be held liable for over $20,000 in medical expenses because the case was dismissed.

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

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