Iowa Criminal Code Des Moines Criminal Law Attorney Jeff Mathias
Criminal law in Iowa is divided into two major categories; substantive and procedural. This article is primarily about the substantive law of Iowa, how criminal offenses are defined in the Iowa Code and their penalties. Procedural Iowa law concerns things like probable cause, arraignment and rules of trial.
This article follows Iowa Code Chapter 700/Iowa Criminal Law sequentially, covering the some of the most common crimes Iowan’s may need to defend against and the other most relevant sections of the code.
We are all considered innocent unless and until proven guilty. This is the source of the state’s burden of proof. In theory, the defendant needs to provide no evidence, certainly we are not obligated to prove our innocence. The burden is on the state to come forward with admissible evidence of guilt in order to overcome the presumption of innocence.
A felony is the more serious crime, punishable up to death although we don’t have a general death penalty statute under Iowa state law, life imprisonment is the maximum in the state system.
In Iowa felonies are defined as:
Class A – Up to life in prison
Class B – Up to 25 years in prison
Class C – Up to 10 years in prison
Class D – Up to 5 years in prison
Felony criminal statutes usually define which level the offense it, although if they do not then it is considered a Class D Felony.
A misdemeanor is the less serious offense
Aggravated- Up to 2 year’s incarceration
Serious- Up to 1 year
Simple – Up to 30 days in jail.
Code sections normally identify each misdemeanor offense by type, but if they do not it is presumed to be simple.
This one will really get your attention. A couple of crooks decide to rob a store. Crook #1 is aggressive and confrontational, he sees a life a crime in his future. Crook #2 is just trying to make it through the week, he just needs some fast cash, would prefer to avoid problems. Naturally it is crook #1 who tends to take the lead in confronting the store clerk. Maybe crook #2 is just a lookout, watching the front of the store to warn crook #1 if anyone approaches. So crook #1 ends up attacking the clerk. Crook #2 had no intention of anyone getting hurt, he just wanted some money. Well, under section 703.1 both of these guys can and likely will be charged for the highest offense, even though crook #2 personally had no such intention and did no more than facilitate the acts of crook #1. It can come down to foreseeability. Would two people engaged in a robbery expect that violence may result? Most courts say yes. See, Supreme Court Justice; Primer on Aiding and Abetting .
If you love old movies you have seen this one dozens of times. The offender is in flight from the cops and “holds up” at a friend’s house, avoiding apprehension. The friend is on the hook for an aggravated misdemeanor here in Iowa if the person they are helping committed a felony.
This is a bit of a catch all for prosecutors. You can get busted for conspiracy just from planning a crime, the substantive crime needs not to have occurred for prosecution. Some overt act is required. So if a conspirator went to the hardware store and purchased a crow bar to be used in a burglary, that is an overt act. Conspiracy can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances.
This is what earns a trip to the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, our decrepit high security prison. Killing someone with “malice aforethought” is murder. Malice sounds wretched, but courts interpret this phrase to mean you thought about it first. The famous case I taught at a DMACC Business Law course early in my practice involved a doctor. The defendants daughter died and the defendant blamed the doctor for not responding to their home much sooner. Because the defendant took the time to walk to the closet and select his murder weapon and then walk back to the doctor to kill him, he was held to have displayed malice aforethought and was convicted. Murder can be either an A or B felony.
Voluntary manslaughter arises from a sudden passion. It is a Class C Felony. The most common example of voluntary manslaughter is the husband who comes home to find his wife in bed with another man and strikes out of sudden impulse without forethought.
When you see a new subsection like this it usually means it is something added, hence the A. We used to charge death resulting from OWI as involuntary manslaughter. Depending on the jurisdiction it was sometimes a misdemeanor. The Iowa Legislature was not satisfied with this approach so death while driving drunk can now result in a Class B Felony. See Jeff’s Iowa Criminal Law.OWI and Iowa OWI Law.
Attempted Murder applies when the defendant attempts to commit murder but the victim survives, like most gunshot cases, a Class B Felony.
Domestic assault is one of the most common crimes charged in the state of Iowa. The people we are with the most are spouses, significant others, family etc. so there is the most opportunity to have problems here. Domestic assault can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances. A history of domestic assault also makes it more difficult to gain or share custody of children. See Domestic Abuse in Iowa- Questions and Answers.
Sexual abuse involves use of force against the will of the victim, use of threat or violence, sexual contact while the victim is incapacitated, has a mental limitation or is a child. These can be charged as high as A Felony. We have gotten away from the term rape because it is too limiting.
A robbery is a theft that involves force or the threat of force. We often say “I’ve been robbed” when we mean theft or burglary. The classic robber is the holdup, the guy that walks into the liquor store with a gun. You can also have robbery if the defendant simply pokes their finger through their pocket at a bank, pretending to have a gun. But if someone takes from a passed out drunk at the bus stop, that is a theft from a person, not a robbery unless force was used. Robbery is either a First or Second Degree Felony. It’s interesting to compare the penalties assessed to robbery defendants who in some cases take a few hundred dollars or less and big Wall Street style white collar defendants who take millions and are not even charged criminally.
Extortion is a little bit more sophisticated than robbery, it involves taking something via a threat of harm and is a Class D Felony.
Burglary is one of the most common offenses. It covers a lot. If someone enters an occupied structure with the intent to commit a felony, theft or assault it is a burglary. Having a weapon makes burglary a Class B Felony. Or a burglary can be charged as low as a Class D Felony. So if someone enters a home to commit theft, that is burglary, to confront and assault an occupant, that is burglary. And all the actor has to do is “break the plain”, sort of like in football. If someone reaches inside a window to commit theft, that is a burglary. Burglary is so common it can even be an offense to possess burglary tools which is an Aggravated Misdemeanor in Iowa.
This is another massive chapter in the Iowa code. Theft is the taking of property with the intent to deprive another of possession. It can be charged all the way from a Simple Misdemeanor (shoplifting) to a Class C Felony depending on the value of the property.
The most common weapons violations are possession of prohibited weapons like a gun. Certain knives are also prohibited like those with double edges. This section also addresses Iowa Right to Carry Law.
Vice keeps local law enforcement busy too. Websites like Backpage Des Moines advertise massage, escorts etc. that can result in a trip to the jail house. Even Craigslist Des Moines was a problem until they eliminated their adult services section. Vice includes prostitution, pimping and gambling. More and more, enforcement in prostitution is focused more on the customer and less on the sex worker. Prostitution is an aggravated misdemeanor unless it involves a minor in which case it is a felony.
A close cousin to the above sections is Iowa’s forfeiture law which permits law enforcement to seize the instrumentalities of crime, for example vehicles used by defendants in drug cases. A very controversial statute, see Des Moines Register, Forfeiture Law, Legalized Thievery ?
Iowa enforces a .08 blood alcohol concentration limit. Most often this happens via traffic stops by law enforcement.
I arrested thousands of drunk drivers while a police officer in Arlington, Texas, sometimes up to three during a single shift. Fortunately, OWI is not as much of a problem here in Iowa, and with Uber Des Moines we can more easily avoid driving drunk. OWI is complex enough that it is handled in a separate article on this website.
For more on Iowa Criminal Law, see the Iowa Public Defender which includes defense resources, and the Iowa Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, the Iowa Supreme Court,Iowa Courts Online (free search). The Polk County Attorney Criminal Division has some good information. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation assists local law enforcement.
Des Moines Iowa criminal law attorney Jeff Mathias graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice from Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos where he also served as a campus police officer during school. Jeff served as a Police Officer in Arlington Texas prior to and while attending Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas, Texas. Jeff started practicing law in Iowa in 1998 and currently practices in Criminal Law, Bankruptcy andUncontested Divorce. See Jeff’s Iowa Bankruptcy Blogger website.
Jeff’s office is located at 4800 Mills Civic Parkway, Suite 218 in West Des Moines, Iowa 50265 . Telephone 515-261-7526, Toll Free 1-800-997-1395. Jeff also practices in Iowa Bankruptcy and Iowa Divorce law.