Iowa High Court Throws Out Sexual Exploitation Conviction of Davis County Coach

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Sexual exploitation, licensed professional, Iowa Code 709.15.

State of Iowa v. Patrick Ryan Nicoletto. Sexual exploitation, licensed professional, Iowa Code 709.15

Iowa Code 709.15 makes it a criminal offense for a "school employee" to commit sexual exploitation. For purposes of this statute, "school employee" is defined by reference to Iowa Code 272.1 as "an administrator, teacher, or other licensed professional who does not hold or receive a license from a professional licensing board other than the board of educational examiners and who provides educational assistance to students."

Patrick Ryan Nicoletto was never an employee of Davis County Community School District in Iowa, but he served as an assistant high school girls' basketball coach. He worked as an independent contractor and was paid about $1900 per year. He was required to obtain either a teaching certificate with a coaching endorsement, or else a coaching authorization. Since Nicoletto was not a teacher, Nicoletto got the coaching authorization. Starting in 2007, Nicoletto engaged in a sexual relationship with a 16 year old member of the basketball team. He was eventually charged in Davis County District Court with violating the sexual exploitation statute. He was tried before Judge Myron L. Gookin, and a jury convicted him. He was sentenced to five years, plus an additional ten year sentence. He appealed, and the Iowa Supreme Court took the case.

On Appeal, Nicoletto argued that he was not a "school employee" for purposes of the statute. The state argued that Nicoletto was an "other licensed professional" because of the coaching authorization. Nicoletto argued that the coaching authorizationdid not make him a "licensed professional" because the coaching courses could be completed in two weekends, which hardly made him a "professional." He also noted that the coaching authorization was not included in a statutory list of state licenses. He also argued that he didn't provide "educational assistance" as required by the statute.

The Supreme Court agreed with Nicoletto's argument. It noted that persons as young as 18 could hold the coaching authorization, and that applying the term "professional" to such a person didn't comply with the requirement to narrowly construe criminal statutes. The Court quoted Justice Scalia who pointed out that courts should apply the words of legislation, even if a different interpretation would be a better policy choice. The Court looked at dictionary definitions and court cases in other contexts to conclude that "professional" meant someone with a higher degree of education.

The Supreme Court also looked at the definition of license, and concluded that the coaching authorization did not rise to the level of a "license." For example, it pointed out that unpaid volunteers could perform the function of coaching.

For these reasons, the Court of Appeals held that the case must be remanded to dismiss the charges. The Supreme Court's opinion was authored by Justice Appel, with whom all of the Justices but two concurred. Justices Waterman and Mansfield dissented, and would have affirmed the conviction. Their opinion pointed out that sports can provide the perfect opportunity for adults to sexually exploit children, and that the legislature had undoubtedly intended to include coaches within the statute.

No. 12-1862 (Iowa April 11, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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