May 28, 2014

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

In July 1999, Henry Allen Holdcroft was found guilty by a jury of aggravated arson and arson. The trial court imposed a prison term of ten years for Holdcroft’s aggravated-arson offense and five years for the arson offense; the sentences were to be served consecutively.

The trial court notified Holdcroft that a postrelease-control sanction would be imposed, but it failed to state the duration of the sanction and did not state whether it was part of the sentence for aggravated arson, arson, or both offenses.

Holdcroft completed his prison term for aggravated arson in 2009 and began serving the term for arson. On January 26, 2010, the trial court held a new sentencing hearing to correct its errors related to postrelease control. Holdcroft argued that he had served 10½ years in prison and that his aggravated-arson term had expired.

But the trial court reimposed a prison term of ten years for aggravated arson and a prison term of five years for arson, and it ordered the arson prison term to be served consecutively. The court also imposed a mandatory term of five years of postrelease control for the aggravated-arson offense and a discretionary postrelease-control term of up to three years for the arson offense.

Holdcroft appealed the sentencing judgment, asserting that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to impose postrelease control related to his aggravated-arson offense because he had already served the prison sentence for that offense. The court of appeals disagreed. It held that a trial court may resentence a defendant for the purpose of correctly imposing postrelease control, so long as the defendant is still serving a prison term for any of the other offenses included in the same judgment entry of sentence.

After that, Holdcroft’s case came before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio – for a final review.

Through the years and in numerous cases, our court has consistently held that a trial court loses jurisdiction to resentence a defendant for the purpose of imposing postrelease control once the defendant has served his entire sentence of incarceration. We have examined the imposition of postrelease control in several different situations, but we have not yet addressed the situation presented with this case, in which the trial court has resentenced the defendant to impose postrelease control for an offense – but the defendant had already served the entire prison term for that offense and remained in prison for other offenses.

Under Ohio law a sentence is defined as a sanction or combination of sanctions imposed for an individual offense, and incarceration and postrelease control are types of sanctions that may be imposed and combined to form a sentence. Our court’s decisions have supported that definition.

The question in Holdcroft’s case was this: Does the fact that Holdcroft had completed the valid prison sanction for his aggravated-arson sentence have any effect on the trial court’s ability to impose a postrelease-control sanction for that offense? We concluded that once Holdcroft completed his prison term for aggravated arson, the trial court lost the authority to resentence him for that offense.

As previously mentioned, we have consistently held that once an offender has been released from prison, he cannot be subjected to another sentencing to correct the trial court’s flawed imposition of postrelease control.

Even though Holdcroft had another sentence to serve for the arson offense, he had served the entirety of his sanction for aggravated arson at the time he was resentenced. We concluded that he had a legitimate expectation of finality in the sentence that he had fully served.

The reason that the line of finality and modification authority must be drawn at the sentence level – rather than at the incarceration level – lies in the fact that “Ohio’s felony-sentencing scheme is clearly designed to focus the judge’s attention on one offense at a time.”

As Justice William M. O’Neill wrote in the majority opinion, “The role of the trial judge in Ohio felony sentencing is offense-specific, not incarceration-specific, and a prison sanction that forms a sentence for one offense cannot be packaged with a prison sanction for another offense.”

In previous cases, our court has examined the effect that a defendant’s legitimate expectation of finality has on the court’s authority to modify a sentence. Together, those cases provide a clear demonstration of the role that a defendant’s legitimate expectation of finality plays in constraining a court’s authority to review a sentence. They ultimately add up to the basic principle that either the defendant or the state may challenge any aspect of a sentence so long as a timely appeal is filed.

But, once the time for filing an appeal has run, the structure of Ohio felony-sentencing law and the defendant’s legitimate expectation in finality in his sentence prevent a court from further modifying the sentence for that crime in any way.

A trial court does not have the authority to resentence a defendant for the purpose of adding a term of postrelease control as a sanction for a particular offense after the defendant has already served the prison term for that offense. As Justice O’Neill wrote, “a sentence served is a sentence completed.”

In the end, we concluded that neither our court’s previous decisions nor Ohio’s criminal-sentencing laws allow a trial court to resentence a defendant for an offense when the defendant has already completed the prison sanction for that offense. It is irrelevant whether the defendant is still in prison for other offenses.

Because Holdcroft was no longer serving a prison sanction for the offense of aggravated arson, the trial court was not authorized to impose a mandatory five years of postrelease control for that offense.

We therefore reversed the judgment of the court of appeals by a five-to-two vote, and sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to vacate the imposition of postrelease control for Holdcroft's aggravated-arson offense.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State v. Holdcroft, 137 Ohio St.3d 526, 2013-Ohio-5014. Case Nos. 2012-1325 and 2012-1441. Decided November 20, 2013. Majority opinion written by Justice William M. O'Neill.