Justice Column

By: News Release
Mar 1st, 2017

This 74th edition of Justice For All is about the presence and conduct of a defendant in court and the judge’s power to control the courtroom.

Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.27 (1) says in all felony cases “the defendant shall be present personally or by interactive audiovisual closed circuit system at the initial appearance, arraignment and plea, unless a written arraignment . . . is filed, and pretrial proceedings.” A felony defendant must also be personally present “at every stage of the trial including the impaneling of the jury and the return of the verdict, and at the imposition of sentence.”

Felony cases in Iowa have long had special rules associated with them due to the consequences of being convicted of a felony. In addition to being required to be present throughout the case, when a defendant pleads guilty to a felony an in court colloquy with the defendant and the judge is required to ensure that the defendant truly understands what he or she is doing and that there is an appropriate factual basis to show the defendant committed the crime in question.

For misdemeanor cases a defendant may appear by counsel but the court may still order a personal appearance for certain purposes such as allowing the state to prove identity at trial. One misdemeanor defendant wanted his case tried in his absence because of an outstanding arrest warrant that would have been served on him had he appeared at the courthouse. Despite the defendant’s best efforts, the judge required him to personally appear at trial.

While the Iowa Rules of Criminal Procedure require felony defendants to be present at trial, a defendant is not allowed to use this rule to delay the trial. Rule 2.27 (4) states that once the trial has begun it will continue if the defendant voluntarily leaves or “engages in conduct justifying exclusion from the courtroom.” If a defendant “engages in conduct seriously disruptive of judicial proceedings” the judge has a number of options including citing the defendant for contempt, taking the defendant out of the courtroom until he or she promises to behave properly, or binding and gaging the defendant.

The judge also has the power to “preserve the integrity or order of the proceedings” by removing anyone from the courtroom. A judge’s discretion in this area was questioned in State vs. Cater, an Iowa Supreme Court case from 1897 wherein a Winneshiek County man was convicted of murder and appealed on a number of grounds, one of which was that the court didn’t rebuke or denounce the audience for clapping after the prosecutor finished his closing statement. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction on different grounds and ordered that Cater receive a new trial. He was tried again two years later in 1899 and convicted again, with apparently no applause from the audience during any part of his retrial.

No one has ever applauded after any of my court presentations although a court attendant once appeared to be dozing off during my closing argument. While this could have been viewed as a sign my closing was too long or too dull, I prefer to think that, having already viewed the rest of the trial, the court attendant was nodding approvingly as justice for all was being served.