In a split decision, the Supreme Court of Iowa has affirmed the ruling of a lower court, upholding the conviction of a man who possessed a firearm in the parking lot of an athletic complex, which while owned by the school district was not contiguous to an actual school.
In so ruling, the majority found that students participating in athletic activities are just as entitled to be free of gun violence as students sitting in a classroom. And that to rule otherwise would be “absurd.”
The incident leading to the decision occurred on Sept. 22, 2017 when the Davenport North High School football team was playing Davenport Central at Brady Athletic Complex. The venue is more than a mile from the school, yet still owned by the school district.
Outside the facility, in the parking lot, there are multiple signs that read: “Davenport Community Schools.” During the contest, Davenport Police Captain Jamie Brown patrolled the parking lot in an off-duty capacity.
Around 9 p.m., Brown spotted a man putting flyers on parked cars and quizzed him about his activities. The man, James Mathias, responded: “Freedom of speech,” according to the opinion. Feeling that Mathias was “kind of agitated or annoyed,” Brown asked him to show an ID. At that point, he noticed Mathias was also carrying a gun. The man showed the officer his carry permit. Because Brown was unsure about whether the parking lot constituted school grounds and he was concerned about Mathias’ “demeanor,” he did not arrest him on the spot.
Instead, a few months later, he consulted with the Scott County Attorney’s Office, which confirmed Mathias should be charged with carrying a firearm on school grounds, a class D felony. A jury would later convict Mathias.
Mathias appealed, citing the proximity of the athletic complex as the reason his conviction should be overturned. At issue is whether the parking lot constituted school property.
In the majority’s opinion, it noted “there are practical problems if we hold such complexes are not grounds of a school. First, such a holding draws an irrational line between schools that are and schools that are not able to build athletic complexes in the same location as the classroom building. But we do not find a meaningful distinction between an athletic complex built next to the classroom, and one built several blocks away. Similarly, we find no meaningful distinction between an athletic facility, such as a swimming pool, that is on land contiguous to the classroom building and another athletic facility, such as a football stadium, that is not on land contiguous to that same classroom building, We are doubtful the legislature concluded students involved in school events at the stadium are less worthy of protection than those engaged in school events at the pool.”
Writing for the majority, acting chief justice David Wiggins added: “Education is not limited to only that which occurs in the traditional classroom setting. Many schools offer classes that are not in such a setting but still take place on school-owned property — e.g., marching band, weightlifting and conditioning, and shop.”
Justice Edward Mansfield, in a dissenting opinion, argued that the criminal statute didn’t give fair notice of the illegality of Mathias’ actions, adding that neither he nor the officer were sure Mathias was breaking the law at the moment. He wrote: “If my distinguished colleagues cannot agree on the meaning of “grounds of a school,’ how is a citizen who wants to comply with the law supposed to know what the term means?”
The full opinion can be viewed here: https://www.iowacourts.gov/courtcases/7676/embed/SupremeCourtOpinion