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4800 Mills Civic Pkwy
Suite 218
West Des Moines, IA 50265

Iowa Criminal Law and Procedure

Des Moines Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Mathias

Iowa criminal procedure is defined by the Iowa Rules of Criminal Procedure covering everything from how Iowans are charged with crimes to what rules guide efforts to get post conviction relief.


Arrest can be custodial which means you get to "take the ride" to jail ("cuff em and stuff em") or non custodial which involves a promise to appear, like a traffic ticket which is technically an arrest and release.

Arrest Warrants

An arrest warrant is an order by the Judge to bring a defendant before the court via custodial arrest. Most warrant arrests are by patrol and traffic officers who run motorist and others names through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and Iowa Online Warrants to check for outstanding arrest warrants. Most warrants are for low level local offenses like driving while suspended, fail to pay traffic fines, etc. These warrant arrests can lead to additional charges like drug possession since law enforcement can search "incident to arrest" and even inventory the contents of vehicles which often leads to discovery of prohibited drugs, weapons etc.

When a cop pulls someone over and finds an actual warrant of substance like murder it is a big deal. But because not all jurisdictions are willing to extradite prisoners, sometimes the person is not even arrested. As a cop in Texas, I actually once had a guy with a murder warrant out of New York that I detained long enough to discover NY would not extradite so we had to let him go, weird. High risk warrants are more likely to be served by the fugitive unit of the police department.

If you know you have an outstanding Iowa warrant, it is best to arrange to turn yourself in at a time of your choosing. You can even arrange for someone to post bail ahead of time although in some cases, especially if you are cooperating you may be eligible for "release on recognizance" meaning you agree to appear at your next hearing.

Probable Cause and Consent

More often, arrests are based on probable cause. We tend to get hung up on probable cause when it comes to searches, but many of the searches cops do in the field are "consent searches". So the officer pulls over a driver and in the course of their traffic stop suspects, perhaps from the youth, dress and demeanor of the driver that there might be drugs in the car. Lacking probable cause, which would be something like the odor of marijuana or seeing a marijuana pipe on the floor, the officer may just say "Mind if I take a look in your car?". We all tend to cooperate with authority figures, so a surprising number of defendants consent themselves right into jail by agreeing to searches. This can start with something as simple as a loud music call.

As a police officer, I walked up to a door on a loud music call and asked amiably to come in and talk about it and the resident consented. On the coffee table was a sawed off shotgun and drugs in plain view - probable cause. I took the guy to jail. -Iowa Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Mathias, 10 Year Police Officer prior to Law School

There is no probable cause requirement with a consent search.

The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees our right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. A key role of your attorney is to review the probable cause law enforcement relied on.

Self Incrimination: "You have the right to remain silent..."

On TV cop shows and in the movies, the cops always read them their rights. Often, the first complaint a defense attorney will hear from the client is. "They didn't read me my rights!". So reading the rights is nice and dramatic for TV but in reality, it happens less frequently. The officer may only read you your rights if they intend to interview you as a suspect or person of interest in a criminal act. So in an arrest for operating while intoxicated for example, if the driver is pouring out of the car, can barely stand and slurs their speech all on video, the case is not going to hinge on whether there is an admission of drinking. If a shoplifter is on video pushing the goods down their pants and leaving the store, a confession is of little value, so the officer may not even bother with the Miranda Warning or getting a statement from the defendant. But if you are questioned, it is best to tell law enforcement you would prefer to talk to your attorney before making a statement. Even well intentioned defendants can make matters worse by being misunderstood.

Defendant -just having been accused of murder says: "I killed him???"

Cop, later at trial to the Judge: "When accused of murder, the defendant said- I killed him".

From the movie My Cousin Vinny?

Initial Appearance before a Judge

In Iowa defendants are normally seen by a Judge within 24 hours of arrest. Often it is via a video link with the Judge from jail.

The Iowa Magistrate Judge will inform the defendant of the nature of the charges and provide a written copy of the complaint, inform them of their right to be represented by an attorney, their right to have an attorney appointed to represent them if they cannot afford one, see Gideon vs. Wainwright, United States Supreme Court: Criminal Defendants have right to counsel in state court.

The magistrate will also discuss pre-trial release, conditions of release, the right not to make a statement, allowing time to retain counsel. The magistrate also schedules or agrees to waive a preliminary hearing. This usually seems like a blur to the defendant but it is a procedural requirement designed to protect you and give you the opportunity to start thinking about your defense.

Iowa Preliminary Hearing -Often Waived

The preliminary hearing is normally scheduled within 10 days if the defendant is in custody and 20 if not. It is a probable cause hearing to determine if the defendant should be held or released. Since probable cause is a much lower standard than guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, often the parties agree there was probable cause and your attorney will agree to waive the hearing so it is not held.

Criminal Trial Information or Indictment

The next step is the filing of a trial information by the county attorney or in some cases an Indictment by the Grand Jury. Most cases do not require a Grand Jury. If the county attorney is not certain whether charges should be brought they may take the case to the grand jury to decide. Although critics have often observed that "a good prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich", a grand jury indictment can seem to carry more weight than an information. The trial information includes summaries of what witnesses are expected to testify to. This gives the defendant an opportunity to rebut the witnesses through their own evidence. If the prosecutor wants to add more witnesses later, they have to do it at least 10 days before trial so the defendant has time to react. The state has 45 days to file the trial information or indictment. If the trial information is filed first there is no need for a preliminary hearing. See Furgison v. State.


A criminal arraignment is a formal reading of the charges to the defendant. It is often handled in writing with no need for a court appearance, and if you have an attorney you may be able to submit a written arraignment form entering a plea of not guilty. Arraignment is required in order for the case to proceed except in simple misdemeanor cases. At arraignment, the defendant can either demand or waive their right to a speedy trial.

If the defendant does not have an attorney they will be informed of their right to counsel, the trial information is read or the reading is waived, the defendant confirms they have been charged in the correct name and enters a plea or if they do not enter a plea the court will enter a plea of not guilty. Typically the only plea the Judge wants to hear at this point is not guilty because it is too early for the defendant to have had adequate time to consult with their attorney and make an informed decision about how to proceed. The last thing the judge wants is for a plea of guilty to be overturned, perhaps months later when witness recollections may be diminished or evidence unavailable. So every time you see the media report "the defendant entered a plea of not guilty" on a high profile case, typically that means it is just too early, many will later plead guilty in due course. Bond conditions are normally continued at the arraignment and pre trial and trial dates are set.


Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.14 provides for criminal discovery through requests for production of documents and depositions. When the defendant requests documents from the state, the state also gets to discover documents held by the defense, so it is a tactical decision whether to request documents. A request for depositions by the defendant similarly enables the state to depose defense witnesses, if it chooses. The Iowa rules of criminal procedure also allow 40 days from the arraignment for the defendant to file discovery requests.


The Iowa rules of criminal procedure also allow 40 days from the arraignment for the defendant to file pre-trial motions. Motions to exclude evidence from trial (suppress) called Motions in Limine must be filed at least 9 days before trial. The defendant can also file a motion to change venue or Judge, or sever charges or defendants. The parties will often also stipulate to motions to continue although the court will start to deny these motions if they become too repetitive.

Criminal Defenses

The criminal code allows 40 days after Arraignment for the defendant to assert defenses. There are dozens of criminal defenses, but here are some of the most common:

Alibi - Defendant was in some other place (The Cadillac of defenses)

Consent - As in permission given to use an automobile.

Entrapment - Law enforcement induced the defendant to commit a crime they would not have otherwise. This defense is asserted frequently in prostitution cases but the fact that the police used a decoy officer posing as a prostitute is not sufficient to show entrapment where the defendant was seeking the services of a prostitute, say through an online advertisement.

Self Defense - Iowa does not have a "stand your ground" law but we all have a common law right to defend ourselves. Defendants hoping to claim self defense should consider the requirement that to utilize alternative courses of action unless the defendant is on their own property, so it can be a tough defense to assert. It can be helpful to review the Iowa criminal jury instructions.

Pre-Trial Conferences

Pre-trial conferences are more flexible and are scheduled as needed to cover issues like discovery, Motions in Limine and other issues.

Pleas and Plea Agreements

Most cases resolve at this stage. The state has an incentive to resolve as many cases as they can short of trial. Good prosecutors will offer reasonable plea deals to avoid the risk, time and expense of trial. Defendants also face risk of conviction of a higher offense at trial, plus greater expense. In fact, the entire system would grind nearly to a halt if everyone demanded a trial.

In Iowa you can plead Not Guilty, Guilty, Former Conviction/Acquittal.

Not Guilty - Cases typically start out as Not Guilty in early stages since defendants need time to consult with their attorney, review the charges, discuss the evidence, witnesses etc. These cases are set for trial. Some are later settled close to trial, perhaps because the state (or feds) offer a more appealing plea deal close to the trial date.

Guilty Plea - In most cases, must be personally made to the Judge who will want to make sure it is factually based, voluntary and an informed decision by the defendant. The Judge will inform the defendant of the:

-Nature of the Charge

-Mandatory Minimum and Maximum Punishment

-Right to Jury Trial

-Right to an Attorney at Trial

-Right to Confront and Cross Examine Witnesses

-Right to remain silent (not incriminate oneself)

The Judge will also inform the defendant there will be no trial, confirm the factual basis for the plea and the terms of the plea agreement.

If they are not satisfied with the factual basis or some other aspect of the guilty plea, the Judge can reject it, see Iowa Court Rules. Iowa does not have a nolo contendere plea as some other states do. We have an Alford Plea is a plea of guilt where the defendant is not admitting factual guilt but is claiming a something similar to nolo contendere because they believe there is enough evidence for a jury to convict. Iowa Judges have substantial discretion on accepting a plea or not and must find a factual basis apart from the guilty plea before they will accept an Alford plea.

Former Conviction/Acquittal

Since we all have a right under the United States Constitution to be free of double jeopardy, in rare cases defendants enter a plea of former conviction or acquittal of the charges.

Iowa Criminal Trials

Whether to go to trial is a tactical decision each defendant must make. I've taken cases to trial before simply because the prosecutor was on a "law and order" rampage and was not offering reasonable plea agreements. In one case the plea agreement was for the maximum penalty on an Iowa OWI case. We had a trial and the Judge decided on a penalty well below the maximum. So trial may be more about sentencing than guilt or innocence. As a criminal defense attorney, it's important to make sure prosecutors know you are willing to try cases. County attorneys are more likely to offer fair plea offers if they know this particular attorney does go to trial when their clients are treated too harshly.

Defendants can unilaterally waive a jury trial up until 30 days after arraignment. In cases where juror passion might be harmful to the defendant a bench trial (Judge only) may be better. Iowa uses 12 person juries in most cases.

The speedy trial portion of the Iowa code of criminal appeals mandates trial within 90 days of the filing of the trial information unless the defendant waives it. Since the state has 45 days to file the trial information or indictment, once you add up to 90 days for trial, the maximum delay absent a waiver is 135 days. If the state fails to observe either the 45 or 90 day rules, the defendant can move for dismissal with prejudice.

Stages of Trial:

1. Jury Selection (Voir Dire)

2. Opening Arguments

3. State's Evidence

4. Defendant's Evidence

5. State Rebuttal

6. Defendant Sur Rebuttal

7. Closing Statements

8. Deliberations of Jury

9. Verdict

Additional Information

See Iowa Law and Criminal Procedure outline. John Burns Iowa Criminal Procedure is well written. Story County has a good Timeline of the Criminal Case. The state has Iowa Court Forms available online. Iowa courts Online Search is open to the public. The Iowa Association of Criminal Defense lawyers. The Iowa County Attorneys Association . We have two law schools in Iowa with lots of resources; University of Iowa Law School and Drake University Law School. Polk County Iowa, attorney. The final arbiter of Iowa criminal cases is the Iowa Supreme Court.

About Des Moines Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Mathias

Jeff earned his Bachelors of Arts degree in Criminal Justice from Southwest Texas State University where he also served as a commissioned police officer. Jeff served 10 years as a police officer, training officer and patrol sergeant with Arlington, Texas police department where he personally arrested thousands of defendants including for murder, rape, robbery, burglary, drunk driving and many other offenses before graduating from Southern Methodist School of Law in 1998. Jeff started his criminal law practice in Iowa in 1998 and currently handles a wide variety of criminal defense matters including Federal and State court criminal defense, felonies and misdemeanors, drug possession, domestic violence, OWI and other offenses. Jeff's many years on the street as a cop greatly informs his practice.

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 handles Iowa Bankruptcy Law and Iowa Divorce Law.

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 handles Iowa Bankruptcy Law and Iowa Divorce Law.

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