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Iowa Supreme Court tie-vote upholds dismissal tax


Appellate defender argues dismissal tax targets poor

May 8, 2020 -- By operation of a tie vote today, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the taxation of court appointed attorney’s fees to the Defendant when her Iowa criminal marijuana charge was dismissed by plea agreement.

In Mathes, the district court entered an order dismissing a felony marijuana possession charge. The district court order stated that the sole reason for the dismissal was “agreement of the parties” and assessed to the Defendant $100 in filing fees, $40 in court reporter fees, and $2,847.28 in indigent defense fee reimbursement, for the same reason.

The Defendant wrote a pro se, or, self-represented, letter to the Court stating that she did not agree to the taxation of attorney fees and, in any event, agreed to total costs no greater than $500. She further stated that a defect in a warrant led to the State’s willingness to dismiss the prosecution, something she argued was not disclosed to the court.

The lower district court judge responded to the letter by directing her public defender to prepare a notice of appeal. The lawyer did so. And the Iowa Supreme Court assigned the case to the lower Court of Appeals.

At the Court of Appeals, the State argued that only “sentences,” not dismissals, are “final orders” that can be “appealed,” arguing an obscure technicality.

Senior Judge Blane, writing for the Court of Appeals, noted:

“Even though the dismissal order requires Mathes to reimburse the state for her court appointed fees, we agree with the State that the dismissal order is not a final judgment or sentence and Mathes has no right of appeal,” the Court of Appeals wrote, continuing, “[b]ecause Mathes does not have the right of appeal from an order dismissing the criminal charge against her and she does not claim the district court acted beyond its authority, we dismiss her appeal.”

The Defendant sought and obtained “further review” to the Iowa Supreme Court. The Supreme Court asked the parties to file supplemental briefs on the jurisdiction of the district court to impose costs in a criminal dismissal order and whether it is an illegal sentence to do so.


The case became a battle between the Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Iowa County Attorneys Association. Each organization filed “friend of the court,” or, amicus, briefs to convince the Court that it should tax the costs to the county attorney office or the defendant, respectively.

The Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the Court had no jurisdiction to order Defendant to reimburse costs after it dismissed the case. The State Public Defender argued that the cost of court appointed attorneys was being disproportionately placed on those who could not afford them in the first place.

The prosecutor’s association urged the Iowa Supreme Court that the costs assessed to the Defendant were a “minor expense” but argued against their assessment on the State of Iowa. It also argued that she was ordered to do only what she agreed to do.

“Mathes received the exact benefit of the bargain she struck with the State of Iowa. The court had express statutory authority to tax costs contemporaneously with the dismissal of the case,” the Iowa County Attorneys Association brief reasoned.


Justices Christensen, Waterman, and Mansfield would affirm the Court of Appeals order dismissing the criminal appeal from the District Court order imposing the tax on the Defendant. Justices Appel, McDonald, and Oxley would reverse. Justice McDermott took no part.


By operation of law, a tie vote affirms, or, upholds, a lower court opinion. Since the decision was 3-3-1, the Court of Appeals decision, and thus, the criminal district court order directing the winner to pay the cost of her court appointed attorney will stand.

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

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a Cedar Rapids or Iowa City criminal charge, contact us for a free initial consultation. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that no attorney-client relationship is established by sending unsolicited information to a lawyer over the Internet.

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