A provision tucked into Ohio’s currently drafted state budget bill would greatly expand who is eligible for state compensation because they were wrongfully imprisoned.
Critics worry about the unknown cost and say it could be a lucky break for criminals who get off on procedural grounds. But supporters say the state has a debt to those mistreated by the justice system.
“There’s only certain things you can do for taking away someone’s freedom, in some cases for a long time,” said Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, an attorney who sits on criminal justice and government oversight committees.
The budget bill passed the House but has not been voted on in the Senate. The measure on wrongful imprisonment would amend the current law to allow someone whose conviction was overturned due to an “error in procedure” to sue the state for more than $52,000 for each year they were behind bars.
This is what was intended when the current law was written in 2002, but an Ohio Supreme Court decision limited the law to apply only when the error occurred after sentencing, according to state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who sponsored the original bill.
“We wanted folks who were released from prison, whether due to an error in procedure or due to an actual innocence finding, to be eligible for compensation when they were released,” said Seitz, who called the court’s ruling “an unduly narrow reading of what we intended.”
Payouts are relatively rare.
When the Ohio Controlling Board this week approved paying $111,846 to former Springfield resident Frank Davis, it marked just the second wrongful imprisonment case paid out this year. The other cost Ohio more than $4 million. Last year, three cases fetched $7.4 million.
Davis was compensated for 192 days, but not the years he was in prison after Springfield police found three pounds of cocaine in his home that he claims wasn’t his. The conviction was overturned because the search warrant used to find the drugs was improper, the courts found, yet his release didn’t come for another 192 days, or more than six months later.
Current law requires claimants to prove their actual innocence — a high legal bar, legal experts say — in order to get wrongful imprisonment compensation. Critics say expanding the law to allow claims by those whose convictions are overturned by procedural errors at any point in the prosecution will open the door to more payouts — and costs to the state.
Brian Gutkoski, a Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor who testified in opposition to the change, said it could cost the state tens of millions of dollars and give Ohio the most expansive definition of wrongful imprisonment in the nation.
“Ohio’s wrongful imprisonment statute should not be expanded to impose strict liability anytime someone claims a legal error sent them to prison,” he said in his testimony.
Another critic is Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who has said the measure wouldn’t bar compensation even to someone who confessed to a murder. If the confession was later thrown out on procedural grounds, that person would then be eligible for compensation, according to DeWine.
He wants those convicted to prove their actual innocence before getting money, and barring those who benefit from a procedural error such as a faulty search warrant.
But Huffman said procedural errors are violations of constitutional rights that guarantee justice.
“It shouldn’t make a difference whether the constitutional errors were committed during sentencing, or during trial or before trial,” he said.
John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said his organization would like to see the measure removed from the state budget and be fully vetted with its own hearings.
“We think it ought to be pulled out and looked at separately,” he said.
The Senate is expected to vote on the budget next week.
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