January 8, 2014
Wrongful Imprisonment

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

It’s an unfortunate fact that in the criminal justice system, people are sometimes wrongfully imprisoned. For those rare occasions, the Ohio legislature has developed a two-step process to compensate those who have suffered that fate.

The first step is an action in the common pleas court seeking a preliminary factual determination of wrongful imprisonment; the second step is an action in the Court of Common Pleas to recover money damages. The law was designed to replace the former practice of compensating those wrongfully imprisoned by ad hoc moral-claims legislation.

The wrongful-imprisonment law was the central element in a case that began nearly ten years ago and eventually made its way before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.

In November 2004, Lang Dunbar struck his live-in fiancée, knocked her to the ground, and twisted her legs. The couple’s two children witnessed the incident. Dunbar then told his fiancée that she was not to leave the house nor answer the door. She remained inside for four or five days. A week later, she filed a complaint with the Cleveland Police Department.

Dunbar was charged with domestic violence, to which he pled no contest. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to 180 days.

In January 2005, Dunbar was indicted on three counts of felony abduction and one count of domestic violence stemming from the same incident. Dunbar reached a plea agreement: he would plead guilty to one count of abduction in exchange for a recommended sentence of community control. But instead, the trial court sentenced him to two years in prison.

Dunbar appealed and the court of appeals reversed, concluding that the trial court erred by failing to advise Dunbar of the possibility that it could deviate from the recommended sentence of community control and by not giving him the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea when the trial court decided to impose a prison sentence. The court of appeals instructed the trial court to vacate Dunbar’s plea.

This time, the case went to trial and a jury convicted Dunbar of one count of abduction. He was sentenced to a five-year prison term. Once again, the court of appeals reversed the conviction, concluding that there was no evidence that Dunbar restrained his fiancée’s liberty by force or threat of force. Dunbar’s conviction and sentence were vacated, and he was ordered discharged.

In August 2010, Dunbar filed a complaint in the court of common pleas requesting that he be declared a wrongfully imprisoned person.

The trial court concluded that Dunbar’s earlier guilty plea – which was vacated on his first appeal – did not bar proceedings toward a wrongful imprisonment declaration. The trial court declared him a wrongfully imprisoned individual, thus completing the first step in the two-step wrongful-imprisonment law. The state appealed that ruling.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s finding because it concluded that the wrongful-imprisonment law is ambiguous to the extent that it does not explicitly state whether only valid guilty pleas will preclude recovery, or whether guilty pleas that are void will also preclude recovery.

After that, the state filed an appeal with us. The issue before our court was this: Does Ohio’s wrongful-imprisonment law bar an action for wrongful imprisonment when the claimant pleads guilty, including in cases where the claimant’s conviction was vacated on appeal?

When the legislature enacted the wrongful-imprisonment law, it “intended that the court of common pleas actively separate those who were wrongfully imprisoned from those who have merely avoided criminal liability.”

According to the law, a person must satisfy five factors before being declared a “wrongfully imprisoned individual.”  The factor that is pertinent to this case states that in order to be declared wrongfully imprisoned, the individual must be “found guilty of, but did not plead guilty to, the particular charge ... by the court or jury involved ... ”

The part in italics is the key here – “but did not plead guilty to ...”  The state argued that the plain text of the law demands a reversal because Dunbar at one time had pled guilty to the abduction offense.

Dunbar contended that a vacated guilty plea should not be considered when determining whether a person is a “wrongfully imprisoned individual” because the vacated plea no longer has any legal effect.

But the law expressly provides that to demonstrate that he is a “wrongfully imprisoned individual,” the claimant must satisfy each of the five factors of the law.  That includes the express requirement that the claimant did not plead guilty to the particular offense.

Under the plain language of the law, a person who has pled guilty to an offense is not eligible to be declared a wrongfully imprisoned individual. Therefore, we are to presume that all guilty pleas, even those that are later vacated, are included because the law itself provides no exception for a person whose guilty plea is vacated on appeal and is otherwise able to satisfy the remaining requirements of the law.

The legislature has created exceptions for individuals whose guilty pleas have been vacated in other instances, but no similar exception appears in the wrongful-imprisonment law. And Dunbar basically acknowledged that we would be required to create one in his case. But, as Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger observed in writing the majority opinion, that is “an exception that belongs within the purview of the legislature.”

The legislature created the claim for wrongful imprisonment and placed limitations upon the categories of persons who are eligible for compensation. One of those limitations is that the claimant cannot have pled guilty to the offense.

Unfortunately for Dunbar, the legislature did not provide an exception for guilty pleas that are later vacated. We therefore reversed the court of appeals’ decision and concluded – by a seven-to-zero vote – that a person who has been convicted of a felony on a plea of guilty that is subsequently vacated on appeal is not eligible to be declared a wrongfully imprisoned individual in order to pursue damages against the state of Ohio.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is Dunbar v. State, 136 Ohio St.3d 181, 2013-Ohio-2163. Case No. 2012-0565. Decided May 30, 2013. Majority opinion written by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.