Iowa high court holds indigent attorney fees bar expungement

On May 10, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected an equal protection challenge to a requirement in Iowa law that applicants for expungement (sealing) of non-conviction records must first repay what they owe in court-appointed counsel fees.  This surprising decision strikes us as unfair on several levels, and out of step with what most other states provide where limiting public access to non-conviction records is concerned.  Rob Poggenklass of Iowa Legal Aid, which brought the case, describes the decision below.

Update: A petition for certiorari is expected to be filed in the U.S. Supreme Court later this summer.  CCRC has agreed to file an amicus brief, which we expect will be joined by other organizations on “both sides of the aisle.” 


Iowa Supreme Court finds collection of court-appointed attorney fees a rational precondition for expungement

By Rob Poggenklass

In State v. Doe, the state’s highest court held in a 4–3 decision that the legislature could condition eligibility for expungement on payment of fees owed to court-appointed counsel, just as it requires payment of other court debt.  In 2015, the General Assembly enacted chapter 901C, which entitles people to expungement of criminal cases that were dismissed or in which the person was acquitted at trial, assuming a few criteria are met.  One significant requirement for expungement is the repayment of all court debt associated with the case.  This includes fees charged to the court by the counsel it appoints for indigent defendants, which in Iowa are often assessed even in acquittals and dismissed cases.  See Iowa Code section 815.9(6).

Jane Doe requested expungement nine years after her case was dismissed, and she still owed the state $550.38 in court-appointed attorney fees.  (Court-appointed attorneys are reimbursed by the state regardless of whether the defendant can pay.)  In a motion to expunge her case, Iowa Legal Aid argued that the statute’s requirement, that Doe repay her attorney fees, violated her rights under the equal protection clauses of the Iowa and United States Constitutions.  Doe’s attorneys cited James v. Strange, a 1972 case in which the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the State of Kansas, when attempting to collect court-appointed attorney fees, could not treat indigent defendants more harshly than other civil judgment debtors (most notably, by allowing wage garnishment of indigent defendants but not of other civil judgment debtors).  Relying on Strange, Doe’s attorneys argued “that the State may not impose unduly harsh or discriminatory terms on indigent defendants,” for the purposes of expungement, “merely because they owe attorney fees to the State instead of to a private attorney.”  Therefore, Iowa Legal Aid argued that repayment of the court-appointed attorney fee debt is an unconstitutional barrier to expungement: “Equal protection demands that a State cannot treat a poor person differently because her debt is to the State, rather than to a private creditor.”

The court agreed with Iowa Legal Aid on the first two steps of the equal protection analysis: first, that the class of people (including Doe) who are unable to expunge their records due to court-appointed attorney fees are similarly situated to individuals who owe fees to a private attorney; and second, that Doe had properly alleged disparate treatment between these two groups by pointing out that defendants who owe fees to privately-retained lawyers may seek expungement, but defendants who owe fees due to court-appointed lawyers may not seek expungement.

Ruling on the key question, the four-justice majority held that the law’s classification survives constitutional scrutiny, concluding that “section 901C.2 survives rational basis review under both the Iowa and Federal Constitutions” because the state has a legitimate purpose “to encourage payment of court debt.”  The majority reiterated an earlier holding that there is no constitutional right to expungement, and that the legislature could have provided a mechanism for waiving such fees in the statute but chose not to.

However, in reaching this conclusion, the majority noted out that “the relief [Doe] seeks in her facial challenge is not limited to presently indigent persons seeking expungement, but rather extends to anyone whose court debt preventing expungement consists of court-appointed attorney fees.”  In other words, the majority opinion leaves open the possibility of a future challenge to the law on behalf of persons who are still indigent at the time of expungement—and still unable to pay court-appointed attorney fees.

Three justices wrote two separate dissents.  Two justices would have remanded the case to the district court for a consideration of Doe’s reasonable ability to pay the attorney fees. One justice would have found the law violates equal protection as applied to Doe because it “irrationally discriminates” between debts owed to court-appointed counsel and debts owed to private counsel.

Rob Poggenklass is a senior staff attorney at Iowa Legal Aid.  A graduate of Cornell College and William & Mary Law School, he previously worked as a public defender in Newport News, VA, and on criminal justice policy at the ACLU of Virginia.  He teaches in the paralegal program at Des Moines Area Community College.

This is the fourth post in a series for CCRC’s non-conviction records project, a study of the public availability and use of non-conviction records – including arrests that are never charged, charges that are dismissed, deferred dispositions, and acquittals.