State v. Lacey, 20-0030

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMCDONALD, JUSTICE.
Decision Date30 December 2021
PartiesSTATE OF IOWA, Appellee, v. LATRICE L. LACEY, Appellant.
Docket Number20-0030

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.

LATRICE L. LACEY, Appellant.

No. 20-0030

Supreme Court of Iowa

December 30, 2021


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Stuart P. Werling, Judge.

The defendant appeals her conviction and sentence for harassment in the second degree, contending there was insufficient evidence supporting the conviction, the district court abused its discretion on evidentiary issues, and the district court abused its sentencing discretion.

Kent A. Simmons (argued), Bettendorf, for appellant.

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Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven (argued), Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

McDonald, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Christensen, C.J., and Waterman, Oxley, and McDermott, JJ., joined. Mansfield, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Appel, J., joined.

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MCDONALD, JUSTICE.

On the morning of April 30, 2018, Latrice Lacey attacked Clyde Richardson outside Richardson's place of employment. She shoved Richardson against the front of his employer's building, screamed and cursed at him, struck him with her arms and hands, kneed or attempted to knee him in the groin, and struck him with a small sledgehammer. A surveillance camera recorded the attack. One of Richardson's coworkers observed the attack from a distance of several feet. A local resident on her way to work heard the attack.

The State charged Lacey with three counts of domestic abuse assault and one count of harassment in the first degree. The case went to trial in March 2019, and the jury could not reach a verdict on any of the counts. The case went to trial a second time in September 2019, and the jury found Lacey guilty of harassment in the second degree, in violation of Iowa Code section 708.7(3)(a) (2018), but could not reach a verdict on the remaining counts. The district court declined to stay sentencing, sentenced Lacey to one year of incarceration, suspended the sentence, and placed Lacey on probation. Lacey timely filed this appeal.

After Lacey filed this appeal, the State continued to prosecute her on the three assault counts. Because the prosecution continued in the district court, the parties questioned whether Lacey's conviction for harassment in the second degree was a final judgment and whether this court had jurisdiction over her appeal. We requested supplemental briefing on the issue. Subsequently, in September 2021, Lacey went to trial on the three counts of assault, and the jury

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found her not guilty, thus rendering moot the issue of whether there was a final judgment. Despite the issue being moot, we choose to resolve the issue under the public-importance exception to the mootness doctrine. For the reasons expressed below, we conclude Lacey's conviction for harassment was a final judgment appealable as a matter of right.

In addition to this jurisdictional issue, Lacey raises three substantive issues. First, Lacey argues there is insufficient evidence to support her conviction for harassment. Second, Lacey argues the district court abused its discretion in excluding a series of harassing text messages Richardson sent to her and in disallowing her from testifying about her training and knowledge of the cycle of domestic abuse. Third, Lacey argues the district court abused its sentencing discretion. We conclude Lacey's conviction is supported by substantial evidence, and we conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion in its evidentiary rulings or in imposing sentence.

I.

We first address the jurisdictional issue: whether the imposition of judgment of sentence for a single count in a multicount trial information or indictment is a final judgment appealable as a matter of right when an additional count or counts in the same trial information or indictment remain pending.

A.

After Lacey filed her appeal in this case and after the parties briefed the jurisdictional issue, Lacey went to trial on the remaining charges of assault. The jury acquitted Lacey on all three counts. The acquittal terminated the litigation

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between the parties on the merits of all issues, and mooted the jurisdictional question. The parties nonetheless urge that we decide the issue under the public-importance exception to the mootness doctrine. Application of the exception is appropriate "where matters of public importance are presented and the problem is likely to recur." Homan v. Branstad, 864 N.W.2d 321, 330 (Iowa 2015) (quoting In re Guardianship of Kennedy, 845 N.W.2d 707, 711 (Iowa 2014)). In determining whether we should apply the exception, we consider four factors:

(1) the private or public nature of the issue; (2) the desirability of an authoritative adjudication to guide public officials in their future conduct; (3) the likelihood of the recurrence of the issue; and (4) the likelihood the issue will recur yet evade appellate review.

State v. Avalos Valdez, 934 N.W.2d 585, 589 (Iowa 2019) (quoting Homan, 864 N.W.2d at 330).

We conclude these factors weigh in favor of applying the public-importance exception and deciding the issue on the merits. The finality of a criminal judgment is a public matter affecting the administration of justice. The parties agree that this is a matter of first impression for this court and that authoritative adjudication of the issue is desirable to guide trial courts, prosecutors, and the criminal defense bar. The issue is likely to recur; juries can and do find defendants guilty of fewer than all counts in a trial information or indictment while deadlocking on other counts that thus remain pending. See, e.g., Hebron v. State, No. 18-1554, 2019 WL 4297251, at *1 (Iowa Ct. App. Sept. 11, 2019); Brown v. State, No. 17-0030, 2018 WL 4922941, at *2 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 10, 2018). As this case demonstrates, the issue will likely evade appellate review due to the pending count or counts being resolved in the district court before the

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appellate process concludes. We thus exercise our discretion to decide the issue on the merits despite it being moot as to Lacey.

B.

Criminal defendants have a right to appeal from "[a] final judgment of sentence." Iowa Code § 814.6(1)(a). The requirement that a judgment be final before a party may appeal as a matter of right is foundational and long-established in this state. See, e.g., State v. Davis, 47 Iowa 634, 635 (1878) ("[S]tatute provides for appeals to this court only from final judgments."). A judgment is final and appealable "when it terminates the litigation between the parties on the merits" and "leaves nothing to be done but to enforce by execution what has been determined." State v. Propps, 897 N.W.2d 91, 96 (Iowa 2017) (quoting State v. Aumann, 236 N.W.2d 320, 321-22 (Iowa 1975)). Generally, "[f]inal judgment in a criminal case means sentence." Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Daughenbaugh v. State, 805 N.W.2d 591, 595 (Iowa 2011)).

We have not squarely addressed the issue of whether judgment of sentence on fewer than all the counts of a multicount trial information is final for the purposes of appeal. However, we have concluded that a dismissal on fewer than all the counts of a multicount trial information is a final order. In State v. Lekin, the defendant was charged with five separate counts in a single trial information. 271 N.W.2d 697, 699 (Iowa 1978). The district court sustained the defendant's demurrer on two of the charges and dismissed them. Id. The defendant subsequently was convicted of one of the remaining charges and acquitted of the other two. Id. The defendant appealed his conviction, and the state cross-

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appealed the demurrer on the two dismissed charges. Id. The defendant contended that the state's appeal of the demurrer was untimely. Id. This court held that the demurrer was a final judgment. Id. at 700. Like a civil case, "the general rule in criminal cases is that a judgment is final for purposes of appeal when it terminates the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing to be done but to enforce by execution what has been determined." Id. "However, the rule that to be final the judgment must dispose of the entire case does not apply when distinct causes of action are united in the same suit." Id. Since the trial court's dismissal order disposed of the two counts such that no further prosecution could be maintained, it was a final judgment appealable as a matter of right. Id. Since the trial court's order sustaining the demurrer on the two charges was a final judgment, the state's cross-appeal outside the sixty-day limit for appeals was untimely. Id.

The rationale in Lekin applies with equal force with respect to the imposition of judgment of sentence for some, but not all, counts in a multicount trial information or indictment. The majority of courts that have considered this issue have also concluded that judgment of sentence on fewer than all the counts of a multicount case is a final judgment appealable as a matter of right even where other counts in the case remain pending. See, e.g., United States v. King, 257 F.3d 1013, 1019-20 (9th Cir. 2001) (concluding the defendant's guilty plea to a subset of counts in an indictment "effectively severed" those counts from the thirty-one counts that remained unresolved); United States v. Abrams, 137 F.3d 704, 706-07 (2d Cir. 1998) (per curiam) (finding sentencing on three counts was

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final and appealable even though the trial court declared a mistrial on ten other counts); United States v. Powell, 24 F.3d 28, 31 (9th Cir. 1994) ("When sentence was imposed on the severed counts, Powell was entitled to appeal because there was nothing left to be done but to enforce the sentence. The fact that he had not yet been tried on the remaining count did not preclude him from appealing the convictions after the first trial."); Jones v. State, 78 So.3d 706, 709 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2012) (holding sentencing on two...

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