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Cedar Rapids Criminal Lawyer: Iowa high court reverses intoxicated firearms conviction



Iowa high court limits carry-while-intox statute to carrying, not mere presence in unoccupied car

June 12, 2020—The Iowa Supreme Court today decided the direct criminal appeal of a jury conviction for carrying weapons while intoxicated in State v. Montreal Shorter. The Iowa Supreme Court held a statute that criminalizes carrying a dangerous weapon while intoxicated does not also criminalize the mere presence of a firearm in a defendant's unoccupied car. The Court reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

On December 23, 2017, the Shorter defendant and a friend went to a “gentlemen’s club” according to the Iowa Supreme Court. Security asked Shorter whether he had any weapons on his person and Shorter allegedly replied that he “keep[s] my shit in the car,” according to the criminal appeal opinion. At some point, a disagreement between Shorter and his friend ensued and they “squared up.” According to the Iowa Supreme Court, the defendant’s friend gave the defendant three warnings to back off before the friend pepper sprayed the defendant. Security for the club called the police. As the police were arriving with lights and siren activated, the defendant announced his intention to get his gun. He was near his vehicle when he was apprehended although he disputed whether the car door was open. Police seized a firearm inside his vehicle.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with a violation of Iowa Code § 724.4C. That statute reads, in its entirety, as follows:

“724.4C Possession or carrying of dangerous weapons while under the influence.

1. Except as provided in subsection 2, a person commits a serious misdemeanor if the person is intoxicated as provided under the conditions set out in section 321J.2, subsection 1, paragraph “a”, “b”, or “c”, and the person does any of the following: a. Carries a dangerous weapon on or about the person. b. Carries a dangerous weapon within the person’s immediate access or reach while in a vehicle.

2. This section shall not apply to any of the following:

a. A person who carries or possesses a dangerous weapon while in the person’s own dwelling, place of business, or on land owned or lawfully possessed by the person.

b. The transitory possession or use of a dangerous weapon during an act of justified self-defense or justified defense of another, provided that the possession lasts no longer than is immediately necessary to resolve the emergency.”

The Shorter defendant took his case to jury trial. The trial court instructed the jury that it could convict the defendant if it found that he carried or merely possessed the firearm and he was intoxicated.

The defendant testified in his own defense that he kept his firearm in the center console, for which he had a valid permit, but that the car door was not open. The Court wrote that evidence in the case included dash cam video, “but the video does not reveal whether the car door was open when the police arrived.” The jury instructions defined possession as “within [his] immediate access or reach while in a vehicle” and “being within close proximity so the person could reach for or claim dominion or control over the weapon” while to carry it meant “to support and move it from one place to another.”

The instructions went on to instruct the jury to consider whether the defendant had actual or merely “constructive” possession over the thing—and that this possession could be joint possession of sole possession. It did note that a person’s “mere presence” was not enough to support a conclusion that the defendant had possession, but it also stated that “a person who, although not in actual possession, has both the power and intention at a time to exercise dominion and control over a thing” is in constructive possession.

The State argued in closing argument that constructive possession was enough to convict even if the defendant did not carry the gun.

On direct criminal appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed the conviction. On further review to the Iowa Supreme Court, however, the Court disagreed—and reversed and remanded for a new trial.

“Because we cannot be certain that the jury convicted Shorter based on carrying the firearm, banned by Iowa Code section 724.4C, and not based on constructively possessing it, not banned, we find the misstatement of the law in the instructions was material and likely misled the jury,” wrote Justice Oxley, adding “[t]he instructional error prejudiced Shorter and requires reversal.”

The Court also addressed a model instruction to the jury that defined statements by the defendant outside of court “as if they had been made in court.” The Iowa Supreme Court noted that the jury instruction that equates out of court statements with in-court statements was outdated and should not be used again. The Court reasoned that the defendant needed an opportunity to attack the reliability of testimony regarding his own out of court statements.

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

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa criminal charge, contact us for a free initial consultation.

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