In a divided opinion, the Supreme Court tackled what the dissent called the corrections department’s troubling propensity to move the goalposts when deciding to release an inmate.
Reversing the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court said that an inmate was “released from prison” when he entered Phase II of the Challenge Incarceration Program, which results in a shorter time inside prison if successfully completed. It remanded the matter, a civil case for negligence and false imprisonment, back to the Court of Appeals.
The opinion in Heilman v. Courtney was written by Justice G. Barry Anderson, with Justice Natalie Hudson concurring. Justices David Lillehaug, Anne McKeig and Paul Thissen dissented, and Thissen also wrote a separate dissent.
“Because they are ‘released from prison,’ [Phase II inmates] have certain freedoms, including social time, visitor privileges, and the ability to find work, receive an education, and worship in the community. These freedoms, even if burdened with Department preapproval requirements, are not available to Phase II participants before they are released from prison confinement,” Anderson wrote.
The opinion may affect a lot of people, said Chief Appellate Public Defender Catherine Middlebrook. Now that the DOC has clarification on the statute, it will probably have to do some adjustments to sentences, she said. “Going forward they’ll know how to calculate [release dates],” she said.
The appellant, Donald Heilman, started serving an executed prison sentence for a felony DWI on May 22, 2007. He entered the Challenge Incarceration Program, Minn. Stat. §§ 244.17 — .173 in December of that year. Phase I, known as boot camp, is confinement at the Moose Lake or Togo facilities for intensive instruction in military drill and ceremony, military bearing, customs, and courtesy.
The appellant entered Phase II in July 2008, which allowed him to live at home under intensive supervision and surveillance. But he could not remain sober and went back to prison in 2009 to serve out his original 51-month sentence. He was released on Dec. 27, 2010, after serving two-thirds of his original sentence. The parties stipulated that Heilman began supervised release on this date. Heilman was subject to five years of conditional release after serving his sentence under Minn. Stat. § 169A.276, subd. 1 (d).
On March 25, after a hearing, the department revoked Heilman’s release for 180 days from the date of arrest (March 12), but the Department then released Heilman on May 14. “Why the Department released Heilman 50 days after this hearing, and 63 days after his arrest, is not clear from the record,” Anderson wrote.
This prison term was illegal, said Heilman, because he was released from prison in July 2008 and therefore his conditional release expired in July of 2013. He was incarcerated until May 2014, nearly a year too long, he alleges.
The District Court disagreed and dismissed his case. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court and said that leaving the confines of the facility did not constitute release from prison.
But in so doing, the appellant said, the Court of Appeals sua sponte undertook to interpret Minn. Stat. § 169A.276, subd. 1(d) without any briefing. This drew a response from the Minnesota State Bar Association Appellate Practice Section as amicus curiae, which said that if the court reaches an issue that the parties did not present, it should solicit adversarial briefing, said Mahesha P. Subbaraman, who drafted the brief from the MSBA.
He observed that the Court of Appeals in a number of past instances had decided cases “in a sua sponte fashion.” He also argued in the brief that “non-adversarial resolution of unlitigated issues by Minnesota appellate courts is a significant problem.”
In her concurrence, Hudson disagreed with the majority’s decision to uphold the Court of Appeals on an issue not raised by the parties. “[A]ddressing the statutory interpretation issue here is neither in the interests of justice nor necessary to ensure that this case is decided in accordance with the law,” she said.
But the court decided to go ahead, saying enough had been done to make the statute part of the case and that the appellant had made the common-sense argument that the department “released him early” because it realized he was not being held lawfully.
The state did not contend that it did not understand the argument that Heilman made at the District Court, Anderson wrote. “Heilman’s argument that he was wrongly detained by the State is based on a plain reading of the statute and is not complicated,” Anderson observed.
“Although the statutory argument could have been better developed and supported, Heilman’s claim was presented, considered, and disposed of by the district court and is properly before our court,”
The court then turned to the conditional release goalposts. Supervised release and conditional release are nearly the same thing, but all felons are sentenced to supervised release. Conditional release is specifically imposed for certain offenses, and the two are not necessarily concurrent. According to the majority, the conditional release begins with Phase II of the program when the inmate moves back into the community. Its conclusion is based on the voluntary nature of the program and the incentive of early release.
Also, the facts show that the department revoked appellant’s conditional release in 2009, which means he did not begin his conditional release program in 2010, the court pointed out. “That which has not yet begun cannot be revoked,” wrote Anderson.
“We therefore hold that the conditional release imposed under Minn. Stat. § 169A.276, subd. 1(d), unambiguously begins when a Challenge Incarceration Program participant enters Phase II and begins living in the community,” Anderson wrote.
Dissenting, Lillehaug said that there is more than one reasonable interpretation of the statute. Although the majority’s interpretation is reasonable, so is the Court of Appeals’, he wrote.
The Court of Appeals said that one is released from prison when the offender completes the entire term of imprisonment. This is a preferable interpretation for three reasons, the dissent continued: It is reasonable and likely what the Legislature intended; it better fits with the plain meaning of the word “release,”; and is consistent with the language of the program, which refers to incarceration.
The Court of Appeals’ interpretation also better promotes the objective of section 169A.276: to remedy a serious, repeated DWI problem by establishing mandatory penalties for felony violations, the dissent continued. The Court of Appeals’ interpretation is “better aligned with the Legislature’s intent” and should be affirmed, Lillehaug said.
Thissen agreed with the Lillehaug dissent but wrote that he was troubled by the Department of Corrections’ “goalpost moving.” In 2009, the department stated that appellant Donald Heilman’s conditional release was revoked. In 2014, the department said claiming conditional release did not start until December 2010. And then, several weeks later, the department again switched course, Thissen said.
Thissen criticized the department but also the Legislature for the confusion. “The Department’s conduct is unacceptable when an individual’s freedom is at stake and contributes to a sense that the criminal justice system is arbitrary and unfair. If there is a justification for the Department’s indecision, it is due in part to the proliferation of conditional-release provisions with different rules for different crimes and the Legislature’s enactment of a variety of early-release provisions […] ,” he said.
Heilman’s attorney, A.L. Brown, said that the DOC has not been held accountable for the way it calculates release dates — for “when and if you get out of prison,” he said. “I don’t know why they are inconsistent [but the decision] should give them some guidance and accountability,” he said.