- Associated Press - Friday, April 11, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The conviction of a former Bloomfield basketball coach who had sex with a 16-year-old girl on his team was thrown out Friday by the Iowa Supreme Court in a ruling that says coaches without teaching licenses are not school employees under the law and can’t be convicted of sexual exploitation by a school employee.

The divided court’s 5-2 decision said the conviction of Patrick Nicoletto, 36, must be dismissed.

Nicoletto was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison in 2012 with an additional requirement that he register with the state as a sex offender for 10 years. He never went to prison and has been free on bail during the appeal process, said his attorney Keith Rigg.

The court’s opinion will no doubt “surprise school officials, parents, and coaches who had assumed the same law that made it illegal for a teacher to engage in sexual activity with students also applied to coaches,” wrote Justice Thomas Waterman in his dissenting opinion that called the majority decision absurd.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Brent Appel, focuses on how Iowa law defines a school employee. Under the sexual exploitation law and Iowa Code a school employee is defined as a teacher, administrator or other licensed professional.

Prosecutors argued that the coaching authorization Nicoletto was required to hold to be a part-time assistant coach fit the definition of licensed professional.

“To apply the term ‘licensed professional’ to Nicoletto, who worked the night shift at a pipe manufacturer and received a very small stipend for his coaching services, would not comport with our longstanding rule of narrowly construing criminal statutes,” he court said.

The opinion pointed out that several states including Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania specifically include coaches in their sexual exploitation laws, demonstrating the ease with which the Iowa Legislature could draw coaches into the law.

“We emphasize that it is not the province of this court to speculate about probable legislative intent without regard to the wording of the statute, and any determination must be based upon what the legislature actually said rather than on what it might have said or should have said,” the court wrote.

Waterman, who was joined in his dissent by Justice Edward Mansfield, wrote under the majority opinion “Nicoletto may lawfully have consensual sex with 16-year-old girls he coaches - conduct that would land their classroom teacher in prison. He would be legally obligated to report a teacher who did what he did, but not himself. This is absurd.”

“The ball is now in the Legislature’s court to amend (the Iowa Code) to close this new loophole,” Waterman wrote.

A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s office, which argued for the state, said lawmakers might want to consider action.

“We stand ready to provide input on any proposed legislation,” said Geoff Greenwood.

Rigg said if the Legislature considers a measure that includes coaches in the sexual exploitation law, he hopes they keep in mind that often assistant coaches can be 18 or 19 years old and the law needs to be crafted in a way that doesn’t result in one teenager dating another gets convicted and sentenced to five years in prison because he’s also a coach.

“If they want to fix it that’s fine but they need to fix it so that we don’t end up doing something worse,” he said.

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