Analyzing the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine as Applied to Statutory Defenses: Lessons from Iowa's Stand-Your-Ground Law

Author:Jessica A. Lowe
Position:J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, 2020; M.S.A., Bradley University, 2017; B.S., Bradley University, 2017
Pages:2359-2391
2359
Analyzing the Void-for-Vagueness
Doctrine as Applied to Statutory
Defenses: Lessons from Iowa’s
Stand-Your-Ground Law
Jessica A. Lowe*
ABSTRACT: In State v. Wilson, an Iowa district court found that a
provision in Iowa’s recently enacted stand-your-ground law, Iowa Code
section 704.13, was unconstitutionally vague. This decision constituted an
unusual application of the void-for-vagueness doctrine because courts seldom
consider vagueness challenges to statutory defenses and rarely, if ever, strike
them down under such challenges. On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court did
not explicitly address the district court’s unusual holding that Iowa Code
section 704.13 was void for vagueness. As a result, Wilson raises the
following question: Is the void-for-vagueness doctrine an appropriate remedy
for ambiguous statutory defenses? To answer this question, this Note
examines traditional rationales underlying the void-for-vagueness doctrine.
It also explores the potential expansion of the void-for-vagueness doctrine in
the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions. Ultimately, this Note concludes
that the void-for-vagueness doctrine is not an appropriate remedy for
ambiguous statutory defenses.
I.INTRODUCTION ........................................................................... 2360
II. BACKGROUND ON THE VOID-FOR-VAGUENESS DOCTRINE .......... 2364
A.CONSTITUTIONAL FOUNDATION ............................................. 2364
B.REASONS WHY LAWS CAN BE UNCONSTITUTIONALLY
VAGUE .................................................................................. 2365
1.Failure to Provide Notice ............................................ 2366
2.Arbitrary and Discriminatory Enforcement .............. 2368
C.POTENTIAL EXPANSION OF THE VOID-FOR-VAGUENESS
DOCTRINE ............................................................................. 2370
*
J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, 2020; M.S.A., Bradley University,
2017; B.S., Bradley University, 2017.
2360 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 105:2359
III.THE VOID-FOR-VAGUENESS DOCTRINE IS NOT AN
APPROPRIATE REMEDY FOR AMBIGUOUS STATUTORY
DEFENSES .................................................................................... 2376
A.THE VOID-FOR-VAGUENESS DOCTRINE VIOLATES DUE
PROCESS WHEN APPLIED TO STATUTORY DEFENSES ................. 2378
B.THE VOID-FOR-VAGUENESS DOCTRINE VIOLATES NOTICE
WHEN APPLIED TO STATUTORY DEFENSES .............................. 2381
1.Ambiguities in Procedural Requirements ................. 2381
2.Ambiguities in Conduct Requirements ..................... 2384
C.STATUTORY DEFENSES DO NOT ENCOURAGE ARBITRARY
AND DISCRIMINATORY ENFORCEMENT .................................... 2386
IV.RESOLVING UNCERTAINTIES IN IOWAS VOID-FOR-VAGUENESS
DOCTRINE AFTER STATE V. WILSON ............................................. 2389
V.CONCLUSION .............................................................................. 2390
I. INTRODUCTION
In April of 2017, the Iowa General Assembly passed1 and then-Governor
Terry Branstad signed into law2 an expansive statutory scheme to enhance
individuals’ gun rights.3 Prior to this legislation, individuals could use
reasonable force in defense of oneself,4 a third party,5 or property;6 however,
they had a duty to retreat before using such force, except in limited
circumstances.7 “[T]he legislation narrowed the ‘duty to retreat’” by enacting
a stand-your-ground law.8 This law included a statutory defense,9 codified in
1. Kristine Phillips, Iowa’s Most Expansive Gun Rights Bill Ever Is No w Law, WASH. POST (Apr.
18, 2017, 8:07 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/04/12/
iowa-lawmakers-passed-the-states-most-expansive-gun-rights-bill-ever/?noredirect=on &utm_term
=.615fc8928d53 [https://perma.cc/YZZ9-HPRA] (reporting that House File 517, the Iowa bill
containing the gun-rights legislation, “passed the state Senate 33 to 17 and the House, 57 to 36”).
2. Iowa: Governor Branstad Expands the Second Amendment Rights of Gun Owners Across Iow a,
NRA INST. FOR LEGIS. ACTION (Apr. 13, 2017), https://www.nraila.org/articles/20170413/iowa-
governor-branstad-expands-the-second-amendment-rights-of-gun-owners-across-iowa [https://
perma.cc/3PCN-4P3A] (reporting that Governor Branstad signed House File 517 into law on
April 13, 2017).
3. Phillips, supra note 1 (reporting “that many say [House File 517] is the most
comprehensive and broadest piece of legislation on gun rights [Iowa] has ever seen”).
4. IOWA CODE § 704.3 (2016).
5. Id. § 704.5.
6. Id. § 704.4.
7. Id. § 704.1.
8. State v. Wilson, No. 18-0564, slip op. at 10 (Iowa Apr. 10, 2020) (providing an overview
of the 2017 gun-rights legislation).
9. See id. at 5 (noting that the defendant in Wilson raised Iowa Code section 704.13 as a
defense); Jessica Travis & Jeffrey James, Know the Ground You’re Standing on: Analyzing Stand Your
2020] ANALYZING THE VOID-FOR-VAGUENESS DOCTRINE 2361
Iowa Code section 704.13, that granted individuals immunity from criminal
or civil liability when they used reasonable and justifiable force to protect
“oneself, another person, or property.”10 This legislation became effective on
July 1, 2017.11
In State v. Wilson, the Iowa courts interpreted section 704.13 for one of
the first times.12 On August 27, 2017, an altercation between two gangs in
Iowa City’s pedestrian mall culminated in Lamar Wilson shooting three
individuals, with one victim dying and two suffering injuries.13 Iowa charged
Wilson with murder, attempted murder, intimidation with a deadly weapon,
and criminal gang participation.14 Prior to trial, Wilson filed a motion to
dismiss, arguing that he was entitled to a pretrial determination of immunity
under section 704.13.15 However, the district court deferred its decision on
the motion until after trial.16 At trial, a jury found Wilson guilty of voluntary
manslaughter, assault with intent to cause serious injury, and intimidation
with a dangerous weapon.17 Following trial, the district court reviewed
summaries of evidence and depositions submitted by the parties and held that
Wilson was not entitled to immunity under section 704.13.18
The district court denied Wilson immunity under Iowa Code section
704.13 on two bases. First, the district court found that Wilson’s actions did
not fall within the scope of section 704.13 because, based on the evidence, he
Ground and Self-Defense in Florida’s Legal System, 20 BARRY L. REV. 89, 98 (2014) (noting that stand-
your-ground laws are “used as a defense in criminal proceedings”); see also Defense, BLACKS LAW
DICTIONARY (11th ed. 2019) (defining “defense” generally to mean “[a] defendant’s stated
reason why the plaintiff or prosecutor has no valid case”).
10. IOWA CODE § 704.13 (2018) (“A person who is justified in using reasonable force against
an aggressor in defense of oneself, another person, or property pursuant to section 704.4 is
immune from criminal or civil liability for all damages incurred by the aggressor pursuant to the
application of reasonable force.”).
11. Appellant’s Brief & Argument & Request for Oral Argument at 35, State v. Wilson,
No. 18-0564, slip op. (Iowa Apr. 10, 2020) [hereinafter Appellant’s Brief], available at https://
www.iowacourts.gov/courtcases/7655 /briefs/1898/emb edBrief [https://perma.cc/7QAU-
AHDX].
12. When the Iowa district court decided Wilson, only one defendant, Kevin Staley, had been
granted immunity under Iowa Code section 704.13. Will Greenberg, Johnson County Judge Seeks
Clarity on ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law After Ped Mall Shooting, IOWA CITY PRESS-CITIZEN (Apr. 2, 2018,
1:01 PM), https://www.press-citizen.com/story/news/2018/04/02/iowa-stand-your-ground-
law-ped-mall-shooting-lamar-wilson-judge-seeks-clarity/467637002 [https://perma.cc/U2QJ-
C3B9].
13. Wilson, slip op. at 2 (Iowa Apr. 10, 2020); Stephen Gruber-Miller & Andy Davis, Trial of
Iowa City Ped Mall Shooting Suspect Lamar Wilson Begins This Week, DES MOINES REG., https://
www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/crime-and-courts/2018/01/21/trial-iowa-city-ped-
mall-shooting-suspect-lamar-wilson-begins-week/1040270001 [https://perma.cc/TC28-CUP3] (last
updated Jan. 22, 2018, 6:30 AM).
14. Wilson, slip op. at 5 (Iowa Apr. 10, 2020).
15. Id.; Appellant’s Brief, supra note 11, at 18–19.
16. Wilson, slip op. at 6 (Iowa Apr. 10, 2020); Appellant’s Brief, supra note 11, at 19.
17. Wilson, slip op. at 7 (Iowa Apr. 10, 2020).
18. Id.; State v. Wilson, No. FECR116476, slip op. at 6–8 (Iowa Dist. Ct. Mar. 27, 2018).

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