Uncounseled Misdemeanor Convictions and Enhancement of New Charges

Every day numerous Iowans are arrested or cited for simple misdemeanor charges (public intoxication, minor in possession of alcohol, theft 5th, drug paraphernalia, etc.), where they plead guilty to the charges the very next morning simply to be released from jail and/or to possibly hide it from their family members.  In most of these cases, these individuals have had no time to contact an attorney or seek any legal advice regarding the consequences of their guilty plea.  Under Iowa law there are a number of instances where these simple misdemeanor charges can be used to enhance later charges if the person is arrested again.  Some of these include: two prior theft convictions can be used to enhance a third offense to an aggravated misdemeanor; two prior domestic assaults can be used to enhance a third to a felony; a prior public intoxication offense can be used to enhance a second to a serious misdemeanor, and two priors will enhance a third to an aggravated misdemeanor. 

For over 80 years the courts in this country have deliberated over the validity of convictions against individuals who have not been afforded the right to legal counsel.  A quote from Justice Sutherland in 1932 still rings true to this day:

"The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel.  Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.  If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad.  He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence.  Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible.  He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense even though he had a perfect one.  He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him.  Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence."

On April 3, 2015, the Iowa Supreme Court reiterated the sentiments of Justice Sutherland in issuing its opinion in the case of State v. Young.  In this case, the State enhanced a Theft 5th charge against Ms. Young to an aggravated misdemeanor based upon two prior theft convictions.  The issue was, Ms. Young plead guilty to one of her prior offenses without the assistance of counsel in order to get out of jail as quickly as possible.  After a long discussion (the entire opinion is 73 pages long) the Court held that the Iowa Constitution prohibits the use of uncounseled convictions where the defendant has not waived an attorney to be the basis for enhancing future charges.

The public should understand that while the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that Ms. Young’s prior conviction could not be used to make the new charge more serious, they did so because there was no valid waiver of her right to an attorney.  If a judge explains to a defendant that the defendant has the right to an attorney and the defendant still waives that right and proceeds with pleading guilty, that conviction may still be used for enhancement purposes.  What the Iowa Constitution protects against is using prior convictions where a person did not have an attorney and did not waive their right to an attorney.  So long as the person pleads guilty with “eyes wide open,” that conviction can and does follow them around for the rest of their life.

Moving forward with this opinion, it becomes imperative for attorneys to delve into the backgrounds of clients facing enhanced charges to determine if the priors being used for the enhancement were uncounseled.  Harsher penalties can be avoided if the defendant was not afforded counsel.  For defendants facing criminal charges it is important to have a knowledgeable attorney, to represent you through every step of the proceedings.  Even simple misdemeanors have very serious “collateral consequences.”