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Iowa high court: expungements still convictions for driving while barred


judge's gavel stern
Supreme Court rules that deferred judgments are actually convictions for purposes of the statute that bars drivers' licenses for too many driving related convictions in a short period of time.

In Iowa, you may be suspended, revoked, and barred from operating a motor vehicle.


Suspensions generally occur as the result of nonpayment of fines pursuant to Iowa Code § 321.218. Revocations occur largely as the result of Operating While Intoxication, commonly called DUI, in other states, pursuant to Iowa Code § 321J.2. They can also occur as a result of eluding. Being barred generally occurs as a result of too many convictions for driving related offenses in a short period of time pursuant to Iowa Code §321.560.


Driving under such a sanction is a criminal offense. Driving while revoked and driving while barred are indictable criminal offenses.


Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to the principle that “convictions” included deferred judgments for such offenses in Johnston v. Iowa DOT.


In Johnston, Justice Oxley made clear that deferred judgments, resulting in expungements, can still result in “collateral consequences,” including driving related sanctions:


“Context matters. Criminal convictions have collateral consequences in a variety of contexts. Convictions are used, as here, to administratively suspend a person’s privilege to drive. They are also used to criminalize otherwise lawful activity, such as possession of a firearm by a person with a felony conviction,” wrote Justice Oxley.


In Johnston, the Iowa Supreme Court examined whether two deferred judgments could be included in the number of driving related convictions required to get your license barred in a six year period.


In Johnston, a motorist appealed arguing all along the way that his deferred judgments were not “convictions” required to trigger the DL habitual violator bar.


For example, "habitual offender" means any person who has accumulated convictions for manslaughter, OWI, Driving While Revoked, Driving While Suspended, Driving While Barred, making false statements to a public safety official under oath, eluding, serious injury by motor vehilce, or any other driving-related felony.


The Johnston appellant had two deferred judgments for such offenses-- and he argued that they were not convictions to bar him. The Iowa DOT repeatedly rejected his arguments and he filed a lawsuit to judicially review the agency decision.


In Johnston, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the agency decision, finding that “conviction” has many meanings, all of which depend on the “context” of the statute in question and, in this case, its intended object: protecting the public. In this context, a deferred judgment counts to bar someone with too many “convictions” in six year period—even though he expunged the public record of the prosecution in at least one of his deferred judgments and the district court sealed the public court file.


The Court examined two decisions: Schilling and Tong. In Schilling, decided over 20 years ago, the Supreme Court decided that a deferred judgment was a conviction. In Tong, the Court decided that a deferred judgment was conviction at least until expunged. While Johnston’s case was pending before the Iowa DOT, he expunged his record. So on appeal, he threw in the argument that his expungement superseded the finding that he was convicted.


The Supreme Court said, “not so fast.” It argued that the earlier rulings, which Johnston was appealing, relied on the finding that he was then convicted, not later expunged. Justice Oxley wrote that even if this was not the case, deferred judgments are still convictions even if expunged when the statute seeking to define them is to protect the public. The Court refused to overrule the 20 year old Schilling decision and signaled that it was not going to limit it with the intervening ruling in Tong.


There was a dissent. Justice McDermott wrote for the dissent, noting:


“What does ‘conviction’ mean? It’s a simple question without a simple answer. Our court over the years has often answered the question with a hedge: it depends.” That was not satisfactory to the dissent, which stated that the Schlling decision should be outright overruled and that the court should reject the confusing method of interpreting what a conviction is with the "context” of the statute.


If you have been arrested for Driving While Barred, Operating While Intoxicated, or other criminal driving offense, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC for a free initial consult.