Iowa Supreme Court Bars Wrongful Imprisonment Suit by HIV-Positive Man Whose Conviction Was Vacated by That Court


In an unfortunate turnabout, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled on April 15 that Nick Rhoades, whose guilty-plea conviction to one count of criminal transmission of HIV was reversed by that court in 2014, could not bring an action for damages against the state under its Wrongful Imprisonment Statute because the statute does not allow claims by those who pled guilty. Rhoades v. State of Iowa, 2016 WL 1533519, 2016 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 47.  The court declined to follow rulings in some other states interpreting similar statutes that had allowed such lawsuits when a guilty plea was vacated on appeal.

Rhoades met A.P. through a social networking website. After exchanging messages, A.P. invited Rhoades to his home and they had unprotected oral sex and anal sex with a condom.   A.P. believed Rhoades to be HIV-negative based on his online profile, and they did not discuss the issue before having sex.  When A.P. subsequently learned that Rhoades was HIV-positive, he contacted law enforcement and Rhoades was charged with criminal transmission of HIV under Iowa Code sec. 709(C).1, a statute that was subsequently repealed in part due to the publicity surrounding this case, and replaced with a statute that better reflects current science on HIV transmission.  Rhoades pled guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, lifetime parole, and a requirement to register as a sex offender.  No evidence was presented that A.P. was infected with HIV, and the statute at that time did not require evidence of actual transmission, merely exposure that could cause transmission.

Rhoades filed a motion to reconsider the sentence, stressing the lack of transmission, and the district court suspended the prison sentence and placed him on five years’ probation. Then Rhoades filed an application for postconviction relief.  He claimed his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by letting him plead guilty when there was, in his view, no factual basis for the charge.  Rhoades argued that as his viral load was virtually undetectable at the time he had sex with A.P., the chance that he would transmit the virus, even through unprotected anal sex, was slight, and certainly not sufficient to meet the standard of guilt under the statute, which required “the intentional exposure of the body of one person to a bodily fluid of another person in a manner that could result in the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus.”  This was described in the statute as “intimate contact.”  At the time of his guilty plea, the trial judge asked Rhoades if he had engaged in “intimate contact” with A.P., without any explanation by the judge or Rhoades’ trial counsel of the meaning of that term.  Indeed, without an explanation, Rhoades could have believed he had violated the statute without having engaged in any penetrative sex.  Although the trial and intermediate appellate courts rejected his motion, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed because, as Justice Appel writes in the current decision, “We concluded that the district court had used technical terms from the statute but that such conclusory terms were insufficient to establish that the defendant acknowledged facts consistent with the completion of the crime.  We further noted the minutes of testimony and the presentence investigation report did not provide a factual basis for the element of intimate contact.”

The Supreme Court had also concluded that “in light of advances in medicine” the record contained “insufficient evidence to show that Rhoades exchanged bodily fluids with A.P. or intentionally exposed A.P. to the disease.” By vacating the guilty plea, the court was not concluding that Rhoades was innocent, but rather that a new trial was needed to determine his guilt, either through a properly informed guilty plea or a trial.  “Because it was possible the State may have been able to establish the necessary factual basis,” wrote Justice Brent R. Appel, “we directed the district court to give the State an opportunity to do so.  If the State was unable to do so, we stated that the plea must be withdrawn and the State could proceed accordingly.  On remand, the State dismissed the charges against Rhoades.”

In the current lawsuit, Rhoades asserted a claim under Iowa Code chapter 663A for “wrongful imprisonment.” That provision provides relief if two tests are met: “the individual did not plead guilty to the public offense charged, or to any lesser included offense, but was convicted by the court or by a jury of an offense classified as an aggravated misdemeanor or felony,” and the claimant proves “by a clear and convincing preponderance of the evidence that the claimant is actually innocent.”  Thus, the legislature was not authorizing a damage claim by somebody who had been officially charged and convicted but then got off on some technicality or procedural flaw.  The Supreme Court pointed out that if it were to hold that Rhoades’ guilty plea was not disqualifying in this case, he would still have to prove his innocence under the repealed statute before he could receive relief.  The focus of this appeal, however, was on interpretation of the guilty plea language.

Rhoades argued, with support from some cases in other jurisdictions, that a guilty plea that is vacated or nullified as the result of an appellate ruling should not stand in the way of a “wrongful imprisonment” claim, but, after a lengthy consideration of the issue, including review of the various state wrongful imprisonment statutes, the court decided to reject his claim. First, it pointed out, the statutory language was clear and did not include any statement, as was found in other state’s laws, softening the guilty plea bar in certain circumstances.  Justice Appel pointed out that in a separate provision the legislature had provided that somebody who is vindicated and proved innocent through DNA evidence may seek relief despite having pled guilty, and “the difference in linguistic approach between Iowa’s DNA statute and the wrongful imprisonment statute offers at least some support for the view that if the legislature intended to provide relief to those who plead guilty, it knows how to do it.”  There was also the contention that the state “should not pay for convictions for which the accused is in part responsible.”  The court also noted that the overwhelming majority of criminal charges are resolved through plea bargaining resulting in a guilty plea in exchange for an agreed sentence, and “the legislature could rationally believe that allowing one who pleads guilty to later seek compensation from the state unduly unravels the benefit of the bargain.”  The court observed that as a result of the guilty plea, there is no trial record in the case, so no basis relatively contemporary with the charged acts for a court to determine whether the claimant can prove actual innocence.  The court also noted the fiscal consequences of allowing such claims by defendants who pled guilty.

While acknowledging at some length the flaws in its arguments attempting to justify disqualifying Rhoades, the court ultimately retreated into a narrow view of its role in matters of statutory interpretation. “Although there are substantial arguments that a guilty plea should not disqualify a claimant from seeking compensation for wrongful imprisonment in all instances,” wrote Justice Appel, “we conclude … that the legislature made a different judgment in 1997” when it enacted the statute.  “Our job is to do the best we can in interpreting the meaning of legislation.  We do not expand the scope of legislation based upon policy preferences.  In balancing all the considerations, we think the best interpretation of Iowa Code section 663A.1(1)(b) is that it categorically excludes all persons who plead guilty from Iowa’s wrongful imprisonment statute.  This interpretation leads to a narrow but not impractical or absurd result.  As we have stated before, if we have missed the mark, the legislature may respond to correct it.”  The court upheld the lower courts’ dismissal of Rhoades’ claim.

Justice Thomas Waterman, specially concurring, opined that most of Justice Appel’s decision was unnecessary because the clear language of the statute excludes those who plead guilty from relief. Justice Bruce Zager also concurred, having dissented in the earlier case in which the court had vacated Rhoades’s guilty plea, and continuing to take the view that “the record, when viewed as a whole and allowing all reasonable inference, provided an ample factual basis for his guilty plea.”

Rhoades is represented in this appeal by attorney Dan Johnston of Des Moines. Since the case revolves entirely around an interpretation of an Iowa statute, there appears no basis to seek further review from the U.S. Supreme Court.

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