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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

A Defendant’s Guilty Plea That Is Vacated on Appeal Continues to Bar Eligibility for Wrongful Imprisonment Damages

In a 7-0 decision announced today, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a person who is convicted of a felony based on a guilty plea that is later vacated on appeal is not eligible to be declared a “wrongfully imprisoned individual” in order to pursue damages against the state in the Ohio Court of Claims.

The court’s opinion, which reversed a ruling of the Eighth District Court of Appeals, was authored by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.

In late 2004, Lang Dunbar of Cleveland was charged with domestic violence in Cleveland Municipal Court based on an incident in which he struck his fiancée and told her that she was not to leave the house or answer the door. He was convicted and sentenced to 180 days in jail.  In January 2005, Dunbar was indicted on three counts of felony abduction and one count of domestic violence stemming from the same incident.  He later entered a plea of guilty to a single felony count of abduction with the understanding that the state would recommend a sentence of community control rather than a prison term.  The trial court accepted Dunbar’s guilty plea, but rejected the sentencing recommendation and instead sentenced him to an additional two years in prison.

Dunbar appealed.  The Eighth District Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, holding that the trial court should have advised him of the possibility that it would not adopt the recommended sentence and should have allowed him to withdraw his guilty plea when it decided to impose a prison sentence.  The case was remanded to the trial court with a directive to vacate Dunbar’s guilty plea, which was done.

On remand, Dunbar entered a plea of not guilty to a single count of abduction.  He was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to five years in prison.  Dunbar again appealed, and the Eighth District again ruled in his favor, holding that the state’s evidence at trial had not been sufficient to prove an essential element of the offense of abduction, i.e. that he had restrained his fiancée’s liberty by force or threat of force after assaulting her.  Based on that finding, the court of appeals vacated Dunbar’s conviction and sentence, and ordered that he be released from custody.

In August 2010, Dunbar filed a petition in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas requesting that he be declared a “wrongfully imprisoned individual.”  Such a declaration is a required first step toward filing an action in the Ohio Court of Claims seeking damages from the state under R.C. 2743.48, Ohio’s wrongful imprisonment statute. 

The court entered summary judgment in favor of Dunbar, noting that the wrongful imprisonment statute limits recovery to persons who “did not plead guilty” to the offense for which they were imprisoned, but reasoning that because Dunbar’s guilty plea was vacated on appeal, that plea had no legal effect and therefore did not disqualify him from being declared a wrongfully imprisoned individual.  The state appealed that holding.  On review, the Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the action of the trial court.  The state sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Eighth District’s ruling.

Writing for a unanimous court in today’s decision, Justice Lanzinger agreed with the state’s argument that in order to affirm the lower court rulings in this case, the justices would have to judicially add an exception for persons whose guilty pleas were later vacated on appeal into the portion of the wrongful imprisonment statute that disqualifies claimants who have pled guilty.

Justice Lanzinger wrote: “Dunbar contends 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 at law.  But we must apply the statute as it is written.  Here, the statute expressly provides that to demonstrate that he is a ‘wrongfully imprisoned individual’ pursuant to R.C. 2743.48, the claimant must satisfy each of the provisions of R.C. 2743.48(A)(1) through (5)  … This includes the express requirement that the claimant did not plead guilty to the particular offense.”

“Although R.C. 2743.48 does not specifically address a vacated guilty plea, we do not agree that this makes the statute ambiguous. … It is a general rule that courts, in the interpretation of a statute, may not take, strike or read anything out of a statute, or delete, subtract or omit anything therefrom.  To the contrary, it is a cardinal rule of statutory construction that significance and effect should if possible be accorded every word, phrase, sentence and part of an act.”

“Under the plain language of R.C. 2743.48(A)(2), a person who has pled guilty to an offense is not eligible to be declared a wrongfully imprisoned individual.  We are to presume that all guilty pleas, even those that are later vacated, are included because the statute itself provides no exception for a person whose guilty plea is vacated on appeal and is otherwise able to satisfy the remaining requirements of R.C. 2743.48(A).  The General Assembly has created exceptions for individuals whose guilty pleas have been vacated in other instances.  For example, R.C. 2961.02(B) bars individuals who plead guilty to certain disqualifying felony offenses from holding public office; but an exception allows them to hold office if the ‘plea … is reversed, expunged, or annulled’ or if they receive a full pardon.  …  No similar exception, however, appears in the wrongful-imprisonment statute.  As Dunbar basically acknowledges, we would be required to create one.  But this is an exception that belongs within the purview of the General Assembly.”

“Based on the plain language of R.C. 2743.48, a person who pled guilty to an offense is not eligible to be declared a ‘wrongfully imprisoned individual’ for that offense, even if the plea is later vacated on appeal.  The judgment of the Eighth District Court of Appeals is reversed, and the cause is remanded to the trial court for the entry of an order of dismissal.”

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

2012-0565. Dunbar v. State, Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-2163.
Cuyahoga App. No. 97364, 2012-Ohio-707. Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, Kennedy, French, and O’Neill, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2013/2013-Ohio-2163.pdf

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