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Iowa State Court Finds Prisoner Entitled to Counsel at Prison Classification Hearing

Iowa State District Court Judge Scott D. Rosenberg reversed and remanded a prisoner’s adverse classification hearing based upon the denial of his right to legal counsel.

Gary Pettit pleaded guilty to third-degree sexual abuse and kidnapping, and received consecutive 15-year prison terms. As part of his sentence he was required to complete sex offender treatment at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, which he did in 2005.

In 2014, Pettit applied for parole. The Iowa Board of Parole denied his request, stating, “the seriousness of your crime or your criminal history suggests to the Board you have not yet served enough time to warrant an early release,” and recommended that he complete sex offender treatment.

Accordingly, the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) ordered Pettit to participate in another sex offender program under the threat of losing accumulated good time credits if he refused, and gave him notice that he could appeal. Prior to the appeal hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Pettit had sought to issue subpoenas and requested that his attorney be present; both requests were denied, with the ALJ citing IDOC policy IS-CL03. He appealed and on March 30, 2015 his appeal was rejected.

Pettit then filed an action in state district court, arguing that he had already completed a sex offender treatment program, he was entitled to have legal counsel attend the ALJ hearing, and he was entitled to prehearing discovery and to have subpoenas issued to obtain evidence or present witnesses.

The IDOC opposed his appeal, arguing that the hearing was a classification hearing and not a contested case, there was no right to counsel, the IDOC had unfettered discretion to mandate a sex offender program and Pettit had “no liberty interest” in early release. The district court disagreed.

According to Judge Rosenberg, “Due process is required because, as the Iowa Supreme Court explained in ... Holm v. Iowa District Court, 767 N.W.2d 409, 417-18 (Iowa 2009), there is a liberty interest in an inmate’s ability to accrue earned time.”

As a result of that liberty interest, “the facts and circumstances of this case required that the Petitioner be allowed to retain counsel or, if he could not afford counsel, to have counsel appointed at state expense,” the court added. “If a person accused of a misdemeanor has the right to counsel under Article I, Section 10, logically a person already incarcerated and facing the possibility of an increase in the amount of time he or she will be incarcerated should also qualify for the right to counsel by the plain reading of Article I, Section 10, of the Iowa Constitution.”

Judge Rosenberg reversed based solely upon Pettit’s denial of counsel argument, stating, “All other issues set forth by both the Petitioner and the Respondent [IDOC] ... need not be addressed by this Court because [of] the fundamental right of counsel that was requested and denied....” The case was remanded for the IDOC to conduct another hearing, at which Pettit’s attorney could be present. See: Pettit v. IDOC, Iowa District Court for Polk County, Case No. CVCV049768 (March 25, 2016).

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Related legal cases

Pettit v. IDOC, Iowa District Court for Polk County

Holm v. Iowa District Court