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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Cmelik Law PLC

Dismissal 'on a technicality' explained

If you grew up on TV crime drama, you know the expression “dismissed on a technicality” or that evidence was “tossed on a technicality.” In lay terms, this means that police believe they did good police work, collected hard evidence of a crime, and that the defense lawyer made merely “technical” arguments to persuade the judge to exclude evidence and thereby excuse the Defendant’s criminal misconduct. The “technicality” argument holds that the Defendant is substantively guilty—and minimizes police misconduct that is, in their view, merely “technical” in its violation of the Defendant’s rights, both statutory and constitutional. As with anything, there is a kernel of truth in this biased law enforcement narrative.

The premise that juries in criminal prosecutions decide facts and that judges are the gatekeepers for everything they see and hear is accurate. The universe of facts in any Iowa criminal prosecution, including drunk driving, is ultimately decided by the jury, called the fact finder. The judge gets to decide whether the prosecution legally collected said evidence and properly laid a foundation to offer it for the jury’s full view (note: at its simplest, it is the State's burden to prove the Defendant guilty in any Iowa criminal case and the Iowa criminal lawyer's job merely to suggest reasonable doubt. Iowa criminal lawyers can and do present evidence to support alternative theories of defense in complex cases-- and the judge decides the admissibility of this evidence, too).

For State's evidence in an Iowa criminal case, If the police and prosecution acted properly, it will be admitted. Before that happens, Defendants sometimes file “pretrial motions” to exclude, or, “suppress,” evidence for both state law and constitutional violations—to alert the Court to illegal police misconduct and keep improperly obtained exhibits from becoming evidence in the trial.

An example of an Iowa state criminal law violation is if a law enforcement officer denies an arrestee the right to make a “reasonable” number of phone calls in jail pursuant to Iowa Code § 804.20 (another crime TV trope—that we all get to use a phone in jail to call a family member, loved one, or lawyer, is true in Iowa). That can sometimes happen before a Iowa DUI defendant has to make a critical decision whether to consent to a breath, blood, or urine test the results of which will become evidence in the prosecution. If an officer improperly denies an arrestee that opportunity, the Iowa DUI breath, blood, or urine test can sometimes be “suppressed,” or, excluded, from the universe of facts that the prosecutor may present to the jury to prove guilt—even though there is no right to a phone call in the United States nor Iowa Constitutions.

An example of a Constitutional law violation happens when officers illegally “seize” a defendant without probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to believe a crime has occurred nor contraband present—a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as Article I § 8 of the Iowa Constitution. If that happens, the court must examine whether the evidence that flows from this unconstitutional seizure—both testimony and exhibits—resulted from this illegality. If the judge finds that police violated a Defendant’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, he or she can exclude, or, “suppress” evidence that occurs as a direct result of the illegal seizure.

Is suppression of evidence merely technical? No. A defendant’s Constitutional and statutory rights are substantive—not merely technical—and any attempt to suggest that “tossing” evidence in this way is merely technical minimizes police unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful misconduct.


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