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Supreme Court: criminal neglect case confused civil and criminal law



The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday decided State v. Michael Buman. A jury convicted Mr. Buman, a nurse, of violating a patient neglect criminal statute, demonstrating the dangers of confusing civil law with criminal law.


The case involved a nurse at a mental health care facility who allegedly mismarked a medication as discontinued when he could not find the pills to administer to a patient.


The mental patient then had a psychotic episode and ran away “into the night” where law enforcement had to retrieve him and admit him to the hospital. His doctor opined that his medication levels were too low, likely the result of the failure to administer the patient’s medication.

The State charged the nurse with neglecting patient care and causing injury. At jury trial, the State offered and the Court admitted into evidence the administrative code which establishes professional licensure standards for patient care. The administrative code section read that nurses must be “accountable” to patients.


However, the criminal code doesn't use the squishy language of "accountability." It reads that a nurse criminally neglects a patient "when the person knowingly acts in a manner likely to be injurious to the physical or mental welfare of a resident of a health care facility.” The word "accountable" is nowhere in the criminal statute.


On appeal, the Buman defendant argued, among other things, that the administrative code should never have been offered and admitted because it confused the jury between civil and criminal standards applicable to patient care.


The Iowa Court of Appeals, one level below the Iowa Supreme Court, reversed and remanded for a new trial in a split decision, finding that the administrative law exhibit confused the jury and should not have been admitted. On further review to the Iowa Supreme Court, Justice Appel agreed with the Court of Appeals majority, writing:


“We think Buman is correct when he states that the admission of [the administrative code section], when coupled with [the criminal law], posed a serious risk of misleading or confusing the jury. The language of “accountability” in Exhibit 15 is ominous and creates a danger that the jury gave undue emphasis to potential violation of professional standards in determining his liability under the criminal statute.”


The Court further warned that, “a criminal matter requiring the highest standards of proof and a high degree of [guilty mind] does not morph into a civil matter over whether a defendant complied with a professional accountability standard.”


The jury was thus “disserved” by the confusion between the civil and criminal law and the case must again be tried without confusing the jury with an administrative standard for nursing care.


The case is important because it demonstrates that the standards of criminal and civil law are different-- and that the criminal law requires an exacting standard of proof that is not required for civil cases.


NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC took no part in the Buman case.


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


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