State v. Vangen, 20-1647

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtOXLEY, Justice.
PartiesSTATE OF IOWA, Appellee, v. ERICA LYNE WEST VANGEN, Appellant.
Decision Date10 June 2022
Docket Number20-1647

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.

ERICA LYNE WEST VANGEN, Appellant.

No. 20-1647

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 10, 2022


Submitted January 19, 2022

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Russell G. Keast, District Associate Judge.

A defendant challenges her conviction and sentence for criminal mischief in the fourth degree.

Martha J. Lucey, State Appellate Defender, and Melinda J. Nye, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Thomas E. Bakke, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

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OPINION

OXLEY, Justice.

Erica West Vangen was convicted of criminal mischief in the fourth degree after the prosecution presented alternative theories to the jury-she either used a baseball bat to smash the windows of a car or she drove others to the scene and one of them smashed the windows. She argues that neither was supported by sufficient evidence, but even if one was supported, a new statute requiring the jury's general verdict to be affirmed as long as one theory was supported violates her constitutional rights. See 2019 Iowa Acts ch. 140, § 32 (codified at Iowa Code § 814.28 (2019)) (prohibiting an appellate court from reversing "a verdict on the basis of a defective or insufficient theory if one or more of the theories presented . . . is sufficient to sustain the verdict on at least one count").

On our review of the evidence, both theories presented to the jury were supported by sufficient evidence, so we need not take up the challenge to Iowa Code section 814.28. We reject West Vangen's sentencing challenges and affirm her conviction and sentence.

I.

Jonnae Cole lived with her mother, Monick Williams, and Monick's husband, Alex, in March 2020. Monick woke up between 4:00 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. on March 30 to her husband arguing on the phone with someone named Yayo, who was threatening to do something to Monick when she left to go to work. Soon after, Monick and Alex left the house in Jonnae's Buick Rendezvous to pick up one of Alex's friends. They returned home a little past 5:00 a.m. and parked Jonnae's car on the street in front of the house. Later in the morning,

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Jonnae discovered her Rendezvous had been vandalized. Both driver's-side windows were shattered, the driver's-side mirror was broken, and a front tire was slashed.

During his investigation, Cedar Rapids Police Officer Tyler Richardson discovered that a Ring camera outside of a neighbor's house across the street captured the incident. When he watched the video, he saw a Buick sedan drive up and stop next to Jonnae's car at 5:39 a.m. With the passenger side of the Buick closest to the neighbor's Ring camera, and Jonnae's car on the other side of the Buick, it was difficult to see the actions on the driver's side of the Buick in the video. Even so, the video revealed that two individuals got out of the Buick, one from the passenger side and one from the driver's side, and caused the damage to Jonnae's car. Officer Richardson could not download the video, so he videotaped the Ring video as it played, and that video was shown to the jury at West Vangen's trial.

Monick identified West Vangen as a potential suspect because Alex had had an affair with West Vangen and owed her money. When Officer Richardson interviewed West Vangen, she eventually admitted she drove her car to the incident, but she denied causing any of the damage to the Rendezvous. During the interview, she identified "Kosher" as the only other person in the car with her. Officer Richardson searched West Vangen's Buick LeSabre, which was similar to the car he saw in the surveillance video, and found a small aluminum baseball bat behind the driver's seat with marks consistent with being used to hit safety glass.

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The State charged West Vangen with criminal mischief in the fourth degree. She pleaded not guilty, and the case proceeded to a jury trial. At trial, West Vangen testified there were actually two other people in the car with her and those people exited the vehicle and caused the damage to Jonnae's vehicle. The State presented two alternative theories to the jury. Under the first theory, the State argued West Vangen was a principal and she exited the driver's seat of her car, took out a short metal baseball bat, and smashed the windows and mirror on Jonnae's vehicle. Under the second theory, the State argued West Vangen aided and abetted the crime. The State argued that even if there were three people in the car, which it contested, West Vangen drove her husband (who was identified as the person getting out of the passenger side of the Buick) and a third person to the vehicle knowing they planned to damage the car.

The jury was instructed that they could find West Vangen guilty of criminal mischief in the fourth degree under either a principal or an aiding-and-abetting theory, but they did not need to agree on which theory. The jury returned a general verdict finding West Vangen guilty of criminal mischief. The district court sentenced her to thirty days in jail but suspended the term and placed her on unsupervised probation for two years. The court also ordered West Vangen to pay victim restitution in the amount of $315 and to pay category "B" restitution for her court-appointed attorney in the amount of $60. West Vangen appealed her conviction and sentence, and we retained the case.

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II.

West Vangen challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support her conviction on both theories presented by the State. Previously, if a jury returned a general verdict in a case involving multiple theories to establish the same offense but not all theories were supported by sufficient evidence, the defendant would generally be entitled to a new trial without the unsupported theories. See State v. Tyler, 873 N.W.2d 741, 753-54 (Iowa 2016) (holding we reverse a general verdict when not all theories are supported by sufficient evidence). That is no longer the case as of July 1, 2019. Rather, "[i]f the jury returns a general verdict, an appellate court shall not set aside or reverse such a verdict on the basis of a[n] . . . insufficient theory if one or more of the theories presented and described in the . . . jury instruction is sufficient to sustain the verdict on at least one count." Iowa Code § 814.28 (2020). West Vangen argues that even if we find one theory to be supported by the evidence, application of section 814.28 would violate her constitutional rights.

Upon our review of the sufficiency of the evidence, see State v. Folkers, 941 N.W.2d 337, 338 (Iowa 2020), we conclude the record contained sufficient evidence to support West Vangen's conviction on both theories of liability. Iowa Code section 814.28 is therefore not implicated, and we do not consider West Vangen's constitutional challenges to its application.

In conducting our analysis, we "consider all evidence, not just the evidence supporting the conviction, and view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, 'including legitimate inferences and presumptions that may fairly and

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reasonably be deduced from the record evidence.'" State v. Ernst, 954 N.W.2d 50, 54 (Iowa 2021) (quoting State v. Tipton, 897 N.W.2d 653, 692 (Iowa 2017)). But, "[e]vidence which merely raises suspicion, speculation, or conjecture is insufficient." State v. Casady, 491 N.W.2d 782, 787 (Iowa 1992) (en banc). "Sufficient or substantial evidence is such evidence as could convince a rational trier of fact that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Gay, 526 N.W.2d 294, 295 (Iowa 1995).

A.

We first consider whether there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find West Vangen guilty as a principal in the criminal mischief. The jury was instructed that the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that West Vangen "did an act . . . that damaged a vehicle belonging to Jonnae Cole;" that she acted "with the specific intent to damage the property;" and "she did not have the right to do so." See Iowa Code § 716.1. The State met this burden.

At trial, West Vangen testified that her husband and Yayo were messaging Alex throughout the night and into the morning of March 30. During the early morning hours, Yayo and her husband told her to drive them to collect the money Alex owed to West Vangen. She pulled up in front of Monick and Alex's house, and Yayo told her to stop on the street near the Rendezvous, which she knew Alex had driven in the past. According to West Vangen, Yayo told her to stay in the car and he got out of the backseat on the driver's side and bashed in the windows on the Rendezvous.

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West Vangen argues the evidence establishes only that she transported her husband and Yayo to Jonnae's car but there was insufficient evidence to prove she actively participated in vandalizing the vehicle. She relies on her testimony that Yayo got out of the backseat, the inability to tell from the video whether the person who got out on the driver's side got out from the driver's seat or the backseat, and her theory that the illuminated brake lights on her car that can be seen in the video show she remained in the car with her foot on the brake pedal.

In response, the State relies on Officer Richardson's testimony. Reviewing the video as it played for the jury, Officer Richardson testified he could see there was an individual between the cars swinging an object at the Rendezvous. Officer Richardson also testified that when he watched the original Ring video, which was much clearer than the video of the video shown at trial, he could see the driver get out of the vehicle. Officer Richardson testified that there was a "flash of light" from the taillight of West Vangen's LaSabre when it pulled up next to the Rendezvous, indicating the vehicle had been put into park. On cross-examination, he agreed that the video showed that the LeSabre's brake lights remained illuminated the entire time it was stopped...

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