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William Eadie | Mar 5, 2014

Ohio Wins Fight to Violate Your Rights For Free

Categories: Wrongful Imprisonment

MANSARAY V. STATE, 2014-OHIO-750

The Ohio Supreme Court today released the Mansaray decision upending prior decisions on Ohio’s Wrongful Imprisonment Statute, RC 2743.48. (PDF of decision here.)

The Court held in Mansaray that, under a highly technical reading of the statute, people who are convicted, sentenced, and serve time in prison due to a procedural error—that is, when they never should have been convicted at all—are no longer entitled to any compensation for their wrongful imprisonment. This upends the greater weight of appellate decisions since the procedural error prong was added in 2003.

Mansaray's home was illegally and unconstitutionally entered by marshals who were looking for someone else. They found ecstacy, took it, and arrested Mr. Mansaray. His conviction was reversed on appeal, and the result is clear: Mr. Mansaray never should have been imprisoned at all.

Ohio, like all states, has to deal with the fact that, on occasion, it convicts, sentences, and imprisons people it should not. Some states simply leave this to the courts: sue, see what a jury (or judge) gives you. Other states set up statutes to govern the process of compensating people who were wrongfully imprisoned. Ohio chose the statutory scheme.

Originally, the Wrongful Imprisonment statute only provided compensation to those who are able to prove, in a civil action, that they are “actually innocent” of the crime for which they served time (either because they did not commit the crime, or because there was no crime committed at all).

In 2003, Ohio’s General Assembly added a “procedural error” prong, now extending compensation to those who cannot show they were actually innocent, but were convicted due to a procedural error. For example, if someone’s constitutional right to a speedy trial is violated and the trial court nonetheless allows the case to proceed to a jury, this is a procedural error. The State has violated a citizen’s constitutional rights and truly wrongfully imprisoned them.

The problem lies in how the General Assembly added the procedural language. Theoriginal statute read:

“(5) Subsequent to his sentencing and during or subsequent to his imprisonment, it was determined by a court of common pleas that the offense of which he was found guilty, including all lesser included offenses, either was not committed by him or was not committed by any person.”

The procedural error prong was added between “Subsequent to his sentencing” and the “actual innocence”:

“(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.”

Thus, the procedural error could occur at any time, but it “resulted in the release” after (“subsequent”) to the sentencing. This makes obvious sense: if you were released before conviction and imprisonment, you weren't wrongfully imprisoned.

THE FEAR / FLOODGATE ARGUMENT

The State argued that the error must occur after the conviction. The State advanced the straw-man argument that anyone whose conviction was reversed on appeal would be entitled to wrongful imprisonment payments if procedural errors could occur prior to conviction.

When asked at oral argument what type of error would fall under this post-conviction-only version, the State responded that one example would be a drug test lab error for someone under post-release control triggers a false violation.

We know that is not true, because most appellate courts have already taken the position that procedural errors occurring prior to sentencing must be what the General Assembly meant, and yet there has not been a flood of litigation since the 2003 amendment. This is because the claimants would still have to meet the other elements—including that they did not plead guilty, and that no prosecuting attorney can or will bring them up on charges.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? IT’S ONLY THE CONSTITUTION.

When the State violates your Constitutional rights, one of the worst things that can result is imprisonment. This is not about the good guys versus the bad guys: everyone must be protected by the Constitution, or no one is.

Now the State is free to violate your rights, for example, search you illegally, even send you to prison for what they illegally (and unconstitutionally) discover, you can spend years in prison fighting on appeal, and the State never has to pay you back at all.

That’s wrongful imprisonment. That’s injustice.

Here’s the oral argument with the Ohio Supreme Court: