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Iowa Supreme Court Vacates Guilty Plea for Lack of Evidence and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Supreme Court of Iowa ruled there was no factual basis to support a defendant’s guilty plea to possessing a tool with the intent to use in the unlawful removal of a theft detection device. The Court further ruled that defense counsel was ineffective for allowing the defendant to plead guilty to the charge.

Before the Court was the appeal of Charles Edward Ross. He was arrested, along with co-defendant Calvin Lacey, in the early morning hours of September 24, 2018. Ross used bolt cutters to cut the padlock off a steel cable that was wrapped around a riding lawn mower that was on display at a local farm-supply store onto a rented truck. An employee who was arriving for work saw them and called police.

They fled but were apprehended down the road. A search of the vehicle resulted in discovery of bolt cutters, the mower, a ski mask, and methamphetamine. Ross was charged with theft in the second degree, possession of a “tool, instrument or device to remove a theft detection device” under Iowa Code § 714.7B(3), and possession of methamphetamine.

A plea agreement was reached on April 1, 2019. It provided for the dropping of a habitual offender enhancement on the theft charge and a seven-year combined sentence on the three charges. After sentencing, Ross appealed and argued his trial counsel was ineffective for allowing him to plead guilty to possession of a “tool, instrument or device to remove a theft detection device.”

Iowa Code § 714.7B(4) defines a “theft detection device” as “any electronic or other device attached to goods, wares, or merchandise on display or for sale by a merchant.” The Court found the statue’s plain language and its title — “Theft detection devices — shield or removal prohibited” — is clear that its “purpose is to prohibit people from using theft detection shielding devices or removing theft detection devices.”

The State urged focusing on the word “device” to support the lock and cable was a theft detection device. The Court said that interpretation would render the words “theft detection” meaningless. Instead, the Court focused on the word “detection.”

“Here, the padlock-steel cable combination that Ross cut did nothing to detect or determine that Ross was committing the theft,” the Court wrote. “It was the store employee — not the padlock-steel cable combination — who detected any theft.”

The Court concluded that the padlock-steel cable combination constitutes a theft prevention device, not a theft detection device. To qualify as an offense under § 714.7B, “the ‘device’ must be a theft detection device, not just any device attached to merchandise,” the Court explained.

Based upon its findings, the Court held there was no factual basis to support Ross’ guilty plea to possession of a “tool, instrument or device to remove a theft detection device.” It further ruled that trial counsel was ineffective for allowing Ross to plead guilty to that offense.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Ross’ guilty plea and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. On remand, the State has the option of withdrawing the plea agreement and reinstating any charges it previously dismissed. See: State v. Ross,941 N.W.2d 341 (Iowa 2020). 

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Related legal case

State v. Ross



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