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Arkansas: Failure to Include Interested Party is Fatal to Action for Declaratory Relief

by Dale Chappell

Failure to include an interested party is fatal to an action for declaratory relief, the Arkansas Supreme Court held on August 3, 2017.

Cedric Brown pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. When he looked into his parole eligibility date, the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) refused to grant him parole eligibility due to a prior violent felony conviction. Brown was told he would have to serve his entire sentence.

He filed a pro se petition for declaratory relief asking the trial court to enforce the terms of his plea agreement concerning his parole eligibility. Brown argued that his defense counsel had promised that if he pleaded guilty, he would serve no more than four years before becoming eligible for parole. The basis for Brown's petition was that the ADC had contravened his plea agreement when it determined he was not eligible for parole and would have to serve 100 percent of his sentence.

The trial court denied Brown's petition on the basis that it did not have authority to abrogate the ADC's determination of parole eligibility. Brown appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

When Brown moved for an extension of time to file his appellate brief in the Supreme Court, the Court examined the record to determine whether Brown could prevail. Declaratory judgment proceedings are treated as applications for post-conviction relief, where a prisoner "seeks relief from the conditions of his incarceration," and an appeal from the denial of a petition for post-conviction relief "will not be permitted to go forward where it is clear that the appellant could not prevail," the Court wrote.

Declaratory relief may be granted only when a "justiciable controversy" exists, which is determined by a de novo review of the record of the trial court. In Brown's case, the trial court held a hearing on his petition for relief, and the plea agreement and its terms were made part of the record.

Importantly, the state Supreme Court found Brown had failed to include the director of the ADC as a party, therefore no "justiciable controversy" existed. The Arkansas Declaratory Judgment Act requires that all "interested persons" who would be affected by the declaration or judgment must be made parties to the action. The Court held that since Brown's claim involved decisions made by the ADC, his failure to include the ADC director was "fatal" to his case. Accordingly, the Supreme Court denied Brown's motion for an extension of time to file his brief as "moot." See: Brown v. State of Arkansas, 2017 Ark. 232 (Ark. 2017).

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Related legal case

Brown v. State of Arkansas