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Iowa Supreme Court throws out tough sentence of North Iowa criminal who was on drugs “helping” in Manly daycare

DES MOINES – The Iowa Supreme Court has decided to throw out a tough sentence imposed on a North Iowa criminal who was on drugs and whose attorney said was “helping” in a Manly daycare.

William Frank Fetner alleges an Iowa district court relied on improper sentencing factors when he was sentenced to consecutive prison terms following a car accident and arrest in Mason City – along with a long list of convictions prior to that incident. An appeals court affirmed that sentence. On appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, however, the court of appeals decision was vacated, and the district court sentence was vacated and his case was remanded for resentencing.

According to court documents:

During sentencing, the Fetner’s counsel informed the district court that defendant was “not very consistent with taking his medications so the marijuana [the defendant] was using seems like basically a way to self-medicate for the anxiety that [the defendant] feels.” In arguing for a suspended sentence, the defendant’s counsel also told the district court that the defendant and his significant other were “running a day care center” where the defendant “helps where he can there in an effort to keep the expenses down for their home but also to provide for the family.” The district court subsequently sentenced the defendant to consecutive prison terms, explaining, in part, it was “terrified [the defendant was] helping in a day care” and “[i]t’s not safe for you to be caring for children if you’re under the influence.”

The defendant appealed, arguing the district court improperly speculated that he was under the influence while working at the day care in determining his sentence. The court of appeals affirmed the defendant’s sentence. On our review, we vacate the defendant’s sentence and remand for resentencing because the record did not support the district court’s speculation that the defendant was working at the day care while under the influence of marijuana.

Background facts and proceedings:

On March 6, 2019, Mason City police officers Corby Friederich and David Studer were driving an unmarked vehicle when they observed William Fetner driving a red Ford Escape. The officers confirmed through dispatch that Fetner was barred from driving in Iowa and proceeded to follow Fetner. Fetner pulled over and got out of the vehicle, so the police stopped Fetner and arrested him. The police did not locate anything illegal upon their search incident to arrest.

Almost a month later on April 5 at around 8:00 p.m., Officer Nathan Sneider responded to the report of a traffic collision at a Mason City intersection. Upon arrival, Officer Sneider observed a male in a blue car and three people in or around a white Ford Explorer—Fetner and another male were near the explorer and a juvenile female was inside the Explorer. Fetner told Officer Sneider he had just been “jumped” at McDonald’s and the traffic collision occurred as he was trying to leave.

Around that time, Lieutenant Dana Knutson arrived to assist Officer Sneider, so Officer Sneider went to check on the juvenile passenger still inside the Explorer. In doing so, Officer Sneider observed marijuana in the vehicle and underneath the juvenile passenger. Lieutenant Knutson pointed out an upside down Frisbee that appeared to be functioning as a sorting tray. The officers also observed a bag belonging to Fetner that contained medical paperwork bearing Fetner’s name, a wooden box with drug paraphernalia inside, and marijuana. They also located a glass marijuana pipe on the rear floorboards. Fetner informed the officers that all drugs and paraphernalia in the Explorer belonged to him and named every item individually.

Officer Sneider placed Fetner under arrest and read Fetner his Miranda warning. While Officer Sneider transported Fetner to jail, Fetner continued to make incriminating statements about his possession of marijuana. For instance, Fetner told Officer Sneider “that he always has marijuana” and “reiterated several times that he was about to smoke some marijuana before [the police] arrived.” As a result of the March 6 and April 5 events, Fetner pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance, third or subsequent offense, in violation of Iowa Code sections 124.401(5) and 124.204(4)(m) (2018) and driving while barred, in violation of section 321.561. Fetner’s possession charge was enhanced to an aggravated misdemeanor due to his prior drug-related convictions. The record shows he has six prior marijuana convictions and has previously been imprisoned on drug charges.

On September 16, the district court accepted Fetner’s guilty pleas and proceeded to conduct a sentencing hearing. With Fetner’s consent, the district court relied on Fetner’s written pleas of guilty and the minutes of testimony to accept his plea. At the hearing, the State requested “an indeterminate term not to exceed two years on each one of those” charges with “the prison terms [to] run consecutive” based on Fetner’s criminal history. Fetner’s counsel advocated for a suspended sentence, explaining,

Your Honor, basically he’s terrified to go back to prison. It was a pretty traumatic experience for him. As Mr. Dalen indicated and Mr. Fetner told you, he’s just 31 today, and there’s no doubt that he needs structure and supervision . . . .

One of the issues he does have is the anxiety. He’s, I guess, not very consistent with taking his medications so the marijuana seems like basically a way to self-medicate for the anxiety that he feels. He, Your Honor, does have a son, who is in court here today. He hasn’t seen him for the time period of his incarceration. He does live now in Manly. He has a home there with a significant other and the two of them, along with, I believe, a third person, are running a day care center and so he helps where he can there in an effort to keep the expenses down for their home but also to provide for the family, and Your Honor, he does have the ability to be successful on probation . . . .
After Fetner’s counsel finished speaking, the district court told Fetner he had “the right of allocution, which is your opportunity to tell me anything else you’d like me to consider before I decide what your sentences should be” and asked Fetner, “Is there anything you want me to know?” Fetner responded, “No, ma’am.”

The district court sentenced Fetner to consecutive sentences of incarceration not to exceed two years for both charges. It provided the following explanation for its sentence during the hearing:

Mr. Fetner, at the time of sentencing I’m required to impose a sentence that I feel is appropriate to meet your needs for rehabilitation and also to do what’s necessary to protect the community from any further offenses by you or by others. There’s a number of things that factor into that: Your age, your prior criminal history, your employment and family and personal circumstances that I’ve been made aware of, the nature of the charge, the recommendation of the parties, and anything else that I’ve learned about you throughout the proceeding.

Mr. Fetner, certainly any time I have a defendant here who’s, you know, in on a second or third or in your case, you know, someone who’s charged six time[s] for the same offense, it’s clear that whatever we’ve done in the past has not been sufficient to rehabilitate you, and there’s obviously a finite number of options we have for sentencing, you know, and those range from what your attorney is asking for, which is a suspended sentence and placement in the community, you know, with some support services from probation, you know, and range up to, you know, prison, which is what the state is recommending.
When I look at all these factors, Mr. Fetner, there’s a number of concerns. Obviously the main one being the continuation of these same types of offenses over and over again. You know, despite that, you’ve got a wide variety of things in your criminal history, not just the drug offenses but OWI’s, you know, and a number of driving offenses but also harassment, theft, assault, absence from custody, and, you know, for a person your age, you’ve amassed an unfortunately long criminal history. That’s only one of the factors that I look at, but it’s clear that, you know, you are persistent in your use of an illegal substance. I am terrified you’ve been helping in a day care. I would think that if the parents knew your history, they would definitely pull their children out of, you know, any day care. It’s not safe for you to be caring for children if you’re under the influence. I totally understand that, you know, as you sit here today, that you are worried about returning to prison. The only way to make sure that you don’t go back there is to stop breaking the law and that’s a lesson that you have not learned yet. On each of these charges, I’m going to impose an indeterminate prison term not to exceed two years. For the reasons stated, those sentences are not suspended and they are ordered to be served consecutively.

Fetner filed a timely appeal, arguing the district court considered an “impermissible” and “irrelevant” factor when it “considered unproven allegations that Fetner worked in a daycare center and speculation that Fetner did so while under the influence of a controlled substance” in reaching its sentencing decision. We transferred the case to the court of appeals, which concluded “the district court did not consider an impermissible or irrelevant factor in incorporating those representations” because Fetner’s attorney raised those facts in seeking mitigation of Fetner’s sentence and Fetner acquiesced to them. Fetner applied for further review, and we granted his application.

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