Scott M. Kuboff, Esq.
Northeast Ohio Trial Attorney

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UYR: Right to Compensation for Wrongful Imprisonment

 It’s not uncommon to read in the news that an inmate was released from prison after new forensic evidence exonerated him. Unfortunately, we also see reports of inmates released after the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence. These individuals lost, literally, years of their life; they've missed births of their children, graduations, weddings, and funerals of loved ones 

        Recognizing the fundamental injustice that stems from being wrongfully deprived of one’s freedom, the Ohio General Assembly enacted R.C. § 2743.48 which provides a remedy for wrongfully imprisoned individuals. The statute allows recovery not only by persons who are officially exonerated, but also by persons whose convictions and prison sentences are vacated, dismissed or permanently overturned on appeal because of procedural errors during their trials. Presently, wrongfully imprisoned individuals are able to recover $40,330 per year in addition to lost wages, costs, and attorney’s fees. 

        All wrongful-imprisonment claimants must follow a two-step process. First, the claimant must bring an action in the court of common pleas to secure a determination that he or she is a wrongfully imprisoned individual entitled to compensation. Next, the claimant must file a civil action against the State of Ohio, in the Court of Claims, to recover a sum of money. 

        As it relates to the first step, to be declared a “wrongfully imprisoned individual” under R.C. § 2743.48(A), a claimant must satisfy all five of the following elements by the greater weight of the evidence: 
 

    1. The individual was charged with a violation of a section of the Revised Code by an indictment . . . and the violation charged was an aggravated felony or felony; 
       
    2. The individual was found guilty of, but did not plead guilty to, the particular charge or a lesser-included offense by the court . . . and the offense of which the individual was found guilty was an aggravated felony or felony; 
       
    3. The individual was sentenced to an indefinite or definite term of imprisonment in a state correctional institution for the offense of which the individual was found guilty; 
       
    4. The individual's conviction was vacated, dismissed, or reversed on appeal, the prosecuting attorney in the case cannot or will not seek any further appeal of right or upon leave of court, and no criminal proceeding is pending, can be brought, or will be brought by any prosecuting attorney, city director of law, village solicitor, or other chief legal officer of a municipal corporation against the individual for any act associated with that conviction; 
       
    5. Subsequent to sentencing and during or subsequent to imprisonment, an error in procedure resulted in the individual's release, or it was determined by the court of common pleas in the county where the underlying criminal action was initiated that the charged offense, including all lesser-included offenses, either was not committed by the individual or was not committed by any person. 

        While all cases are different, usually the first three elements are easily established. However, issues often arise in establishing the fourth and fifth elements. As it relates to the fourth element, claimants must prove that at the time of the incident for which they were initially charged, they were not engaging in any other criminal conduct arising out of the incident for which they were initially charged. For example, a conviction for safecracking was reversed because the box was not a “vault, safe, or strongbox” as defined by the statute. However, there was still an underlying theft offense for the items taken from the box. In this case, the person cannot be declared a “wrongfully imprisoned person” because they still engaged in criminal conduct arising out of the same incident for which they were initially charged. 

        In 2003, the General Assembly amended the fifth element of R.C. § 2743.48 to provide that a wrongful-imprisonment claimant must prove either that "[1] an error in procedure resulted in the individual's release, or [2] it was determined . . . that the charged offense, including all lesser-included offenses, either was not committed by the individual or was not committed by any person.” The latter is where the person is “actually innocent.” However, after 2003, a claimant need not prove innocence if they can show an error in procedure which resulted in their release.  Yet, in Mansary v. State, 2014-Ohio-750, the Supreme Court of Ohio clarified the timing for the error in procedure; it must occur after sentencing and during or subsequent to imprisonment.   This decision certainly curtails claimants who may have a pre-sentence error in procedure  – e.g. failure to grant a motion to suppress, failure to dismiss an indictment, Brady violation, etc. -- but cannot show a post-sentence error.   Notwithstanding, the Mansary decision does not bar claimant who can prove "actual innocence."       

        If a claimant can satisfy the foregoing elements, he or she may be declared a “wrongfully imprisoned individual.” Once this determination is made by the court of common pleas, the claimant must then file a civil complaint in the Court of Claims which will resolve the issue of damages.