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Kansas Supreme Court Modifies “Exoneration Rule”

In an opinion handed down on December 31, 2015, the Supreme Court of Kansas modified the requirement that a criminal defendant be exonerated prior to suing the attorney who represented him (the “exoneration rule”). Under the modification, reversal of a conviction or other post-conviction relief may count as a form for exoneration.

George Michael Garcia hired attorney Charles Ball to represent him in a probation revocation hearing during which he stipulated to the violation. The court violated the probation and remanded him to the Kansas Department of Corrections (DOC) to serve his originally imposed prison term. However, the journal entry of sentencing erroneously directed Garcia to serve 12-months post-release supervision following his 9-month prison term. This violated state statute, K.S.A. 22-3716(e), which prohibits post-release supervision following a prison sentence due to the revocation of probation.

The DOC sent the district court a letter informing it of the erroneous post-release supervision requirement, but also stating; that it would abide by the court’s order until it was ordered to do otherwise. The court never corrected the erroneous sentence.

Following his release, Garcia was convicted of another offense. Because it was committed while he was on post-release supervision, the sentence was enhanced. While in prison, he wrote Ball repeatedly, asking him to have the illegal sentence corrected. Ball did nothing.

Finally, Garcia filed a pro se motion to correct the illegal sentence. The sentence was corrected and Garcia was released from prison a few days later, having spent 6 to 8 months longer in prison than he would have had there been no illegal sentence.

Assisted by Ottawa attorney John Arthur Boyd, Garcia filed a state legal malpractice suit against Ball. Ball never answered the suit. Garcia moved for default judgment and received it. Ball filed a motion to set aside the default judgment which the court granted. Ball then filed a motion to dismiss the suit alleging Garcia had not filed it within the two-year statute of limitations and had not first been exonerated before filing suit. The court dismissed the suit and Garcia appealed.

The Court of Appeals reinstated the default judgment and Ball petitioned the Supreme Court of Kansas for review with Garcia cross-petitioning. The court held that the trial court had properly set aside the default judgment. It then addressed the dismissal.

The Court held that a criminal defendant need not prove actual innocence prior to suing his defense attorney. It is sufficient if the defendant received relief invalidating a prior proceeding, such as a reversal for ineffective assistance of counsel. This was a form of exoneration.

In this case, the form of exoneration was the correction of the illegal sentence. Garcia filed his suit 8 months after the correction and this was well within the statute of limitations. Therefore, the dismissal was improper.

The court reversed the decision of the court of appeals reinstating the default judgment and affirmed the district court’s order setting aside the default judgment. It also reversed the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings. See: Garcia v. Ball, Kansas S.Ct., No. 108,817 (decided December 31, 2015).

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Related legal case

Garcia v. Ball