Kansas Supreme Court: Wrongful conviction law applies to inmates at state prisons, county jails

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TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion Friday declaring a Sumner County man could seek wrongful-conviction compensation despite a district court ruling he wasn’t eligible because the period of incarceration was in a county jail rather than a state prison.

The Kansas Court of Appeals had reversed the conviction of Dameon Baumgarner in 2021 after he completed his sentence in Sumner County Jail for felony possession of a firearm. A district court judge ordered him to serve a 60-day stint in county jail, but Baumgarner got tagged for six months extra because the new guilty verdict triggered a probation violation in a separate case.

Baumgarner turned to a 2018 state law providing opportunity for individuals asserting they were wrongfully convicted of a felony crime to apply for financial compensation. The Sumner County District Court rejected his petition for relief, which prompted Baumgarner’s appeal.

The Kansas attorney general’s office argued state law on compensating those wrongfully convicted should be narrowly construed so the word “imprisonment” applied merely to people physically held at facilities operated by the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Justices of the Supreme Court, during oral argument in May, indicated they were skeptical there was a distinction between iron bars of a jail and a prison. In the opinion issued Friday, the state’s highest court affirmed that view. The justices reversed the district court and sent Baumgardner’s wrongful-conviction claim back to Sumner County.

“We believe that the text of the statute demonstrates that it does not include time in the county jail,” said Kurtis Wiard, assistant Kansas solicitor general.

Justice Caleb Stegall, an appointee for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, asked Wiard during oral arguments to clarify that perspective. His question touched on whether a Hutchinson Correctional Facility inmate transferred for some reason to Reno County Jail wouldn’t be able to take into account days held at the county jail if the conviction was subsequently reversed.

“I’m just trying to figure out if you mean what you say,” Stegall said.

Look at a dictionary

Chief Justice Marla Luckert, appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Graves in 2002, said the Kansas Legislature approved and GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer signed into law a bill enabling judges to punish individuals guilty of certain felony crimes with a term of 60 days in county jail. She pointed to Black’s Law Dictionary, which indicated imprisonment referred to restraint of personal liberty at a location that didn’t have to be a formal prison.

“I don’t think broad dictionary definitions get us quite there,” said Wiard, who urged the court to reserve wrongful-conviction compensation for people who had been locked up at KDOC facilities.

Larry Michel, a Salina attorney representing Baumgarner, said there was no dispute about basic facts of the conviction and exhoneration of his client.

He said the state’s wrongful conviction statute was available to people convicted of a felony crime, imprisoned for that offense and subsequently exonerated. In this case, he argued, his client met that description. He said the justices had to settle on a definition of imprisoned.

“We universally have an interpretation of what imprisonment means and it’s not limited to confinement in a state facility,” Michel said.

In the Supreme Court’s opinion, Stegall said the district court was wrong to conclude Baumgarner shouldn’t be considered imprisoned while sitting in the county jail.

The other issue

Baumgarner’s gun possession conviction had been overturned and his sentence vacated by the Court of Appeals because the district court was found to have insufficient grounds to prove Baumgarner had been mentally ill and subject to involuntary commitment in the past.

Originally, the district court judge sentenced Baumgarner to 10 months on the firearm offense. The sentence was converted to two months in jail and 18 months probation. Baumgarner did two months on the felony gun, but also six months for violating probation in the previous case.

Michel, the attorney for Baumgarner, said his client was wrongfully confined for eight months and suggested he should be allowed to seek compensation for that entire period behind bars.

“If he hadn’t been convicted on that felony he would not have spent one more day in a cell,” Michel said.

Stegall’s opinion said Baumgarner’s six months in county jail for the probation infraction wasn’t tied to the wrongful conviction and wouldn’t be part of reparation calculus.

“Given this,” Stegall said, “the maximum amount of time for which Baumgarner could potentially recover under the wrongful conviction compensation statute is for the 60 days he was imprisoned in the county jail as a condition of the felony probation.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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