I Was Put in Prison then Exonerated. Can I Sue the Government?

A new law, effective July 1, 2014, establishes a compensation process for persons who have been determined to be innocent of a crime for which they served any part of a prison sentence. As you will see, the process to petition for compensation is rather complex. If you think you are eligible for compensation or would like to ask an attorney questions, call or email the criminal defense attorneys at Brockton D. Hunter, P.A. for a free consultation.

For a good example of the types of cases to which this new law will apply, see the City Pages recent article about the well publicized wrongful conviction of Koua Fong Lee. On June 10, 1996, Lee was coming home from church when his Toyota Camry refused to stop coming off of the eastbound I-94 Snelling Avenue exit in St. Paul. Lee’s car accelerated uncontrollably into a car parked at a red light, killing three people. He was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide in 2007. Lee spent two and a half years in prison before reports started surfacing about a defect in Toyotas that caused uncontrollable acceleration.

What does the new exoneration compensation statute say?

The law lays out a two-step procedure to obtain compensation for a wrongful imprisonment. First, one must petition for an Order of Eligibility, pursuant to Minnesota Statute § 590.11. After a person has obtained such an order, the person must bring a claim for reward in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court pursuant to Minnesota Statute §611.362.To obtain an order of Eligibility the petitioner needs to file a petition in the district court that convicted him. After the petition is filed the court will set a hearing. Through the petition and hearing, the Petitioner must establish three things; first he is exonerated, second the exoneration is in the interest of justice, and third a claim arises.

The first hurdle a petitioner need clear is showing that he was exonerated. This hurdle is often referred to as a condition precedent. To be exonerated in Minnesota a petitioner must show a court of this state:

  1. vacated or reversed a judgment of conviction on grounds consistent with innocence and the prosecutor dismissed the charges; or
  2. ordered a new trial on grounds consistent with innocence and prosecutor dismissed charges or petitioner was found not guilty at new trial; and
  3. the time for appeal of the order resulting in exoneration has expired, or the order has been affirmed and is final.

So essentially a petitioner must show the reason he was released is consistent with innocence and that the order is final.

Next, to obtain an order a petitioner must get the prosecutor who obtained the conviction to join the petition, or, if the prosecutor refuses, he or she must establish his innocence. So realistically, most people seeking compensation will need to prove by clear and convincing evidence that either a crime was not committed or the crime was not committed by the petitioner.

In the final proceeding, a petitioner must prove the elements of a claim for compensation, which are:

  1. Exoneration in the Interest of Justice (as discussed above);
  2. The person was convicted of a felony and served any part of the imposed sentence in prison;
  3. In cases where the person was convicted of multiple charges arising out of the same behavioral incident, the person was exonerated for all charges;
  4. The person did not commit or induce another to commit perjury or fabricate evidence to cause or bring about the conviction; and
  5. The person was not serving a term of imprisonment for another crime at the same time, provided that if the person served additional time in prison due to the conviction that is the basis of the claim, the person may make a claim for that portion of the sentence during which the person was serving no other sentence.

Seeking compensation after exoneration order is granted

Once a Petitioner has his exoneration order, he must then bring a claim for an award in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The claim must name the State as the respondent and be brought within 60 days of getting the exoneration order. The Supreme Court will then appoint a compensation panel who will determine the amount of damages to be awarded. The statute provides for a prehearing settlement conference and a hearing if no solution is reached at the settlement conference. The minimum amount of damages a petitioner will receive is $50,000 for each year of imprisonment, or $25,000 for each year of supervised release or registry as a sex offender. The Claimant is entitled to reimbursement for all restitution, assessments, fees, court costs, and other sums paid as required by the judgment and sentence. The panel will also award reasonable attorneys fees incurred in bringing this claim and securing the order of eligibility. The panel may consider the following when reaching an award:

  • Economic damages, including reasonable attorney fees, lost wages, and costs associated with claimant’s criminal defense;
  • Reimbursement for medical and dental expenses that claimant already incurred and future unpaid expenses expected to be incurred as a result of defendant’s imprisonment;
  • Noneconomic damages for personal physical injuries or sicknesses and any nonphysical injuries or sicknesses incurred as a result of imprisonment;
  • Reimbursement for any tuition and fees paid each semester successfully completed by the claimant in an educational program or for employment skills and development training, up to the equivalent value of a four-year-degree at a public university and reasonable payment for future unpaid costs for education and training, not to exceed the anticipated four-year-degree at a public university;
  • Reimbursement for paid or unpaid child support payments owed by claimant while imprisoned;
  • Reimbursement for reasonable costs of paid or unpaid reintegrative expenses for immediate services secured by the claimant upon exoneration and release, including housing, transportation, substistence, reintegrative services and medical and dental health care costs.

For more information contact a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney at Brockton D. Hunter P.A.