Iowa Man Can’t Sue After Plea Vacated in HIV Case

     DES MOINES, Iowa — A former inmate whose guilty plea for criminal transmission of HIV was later vacated, cannot sue the state for wrongful imprisonment compensation, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled.
     As recounted in court documents, Nicholas Rhoades pleaded guilty to criminal transmission of HIV after A.P., a man with whom he’d had unprotected oral sex and protected anal sex, contacted law enforcement after learning Rhoades was HIV positive.
     A.P. had believed, based on Rhoades’s online profile, that he was HIV negative, according to a ruling written by Judge Brent Appel.
     Rhoades was initially sentenced to up to 25 years’ in prison and placed on the sex offender registry, but after Rhoades filed for reconsideration, his sentence was reduced to five years of probation, the April 15 opinion says.
     Six months after his sentence was changed, Rhoades appealed his conviction, claiming he had received ineffective counsel during his trial, and as a result was allowed to plead guilty to a charge that was without a factual basis.
     The Iowa Supreme Court agreed, finding that “the district court had used technical terms from the statute but that such conclusory terms were insufficient to establish that the defendant acknowledged the facts consistent with completion of the crime.”
     Specifically, Rhoades’s viral load for HIV was low when he met A.P., and his acknowledgment that he had engaged in intimate contact with A.P. did not prove that he had exchanged bodily fluids with him or had intentionally exposed him to HIV.
     Despite the reversal, the court rejected Rhoades’s argument that he was now entitled to compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
     While acknowledging that there is increasing “empirical evidence to support the assertion that innocent people sometimes plead guilty,” Judge Appel stuck close to the letter of Iowa law, which says a defendant cannot be granted compensation for wrongful imprisonment if he originally pleaded guilty to the crime.
     This is because “[e]ven if an accused pleads guilty via a guilty plea that is later vacated, the accused has, as a matter of fact, played a role in causing subsequent incarceration,” Appel wrote.
     In addition, even when a conviction arising from a guilty plea is vacated, Iowa law requires that “a claimant must prove by a clear and convincing preponderance of evidence that the claimant is actually innocent,” Appel said.
     He cautioned that the Iowa Supreme Court’s earlier reversal of Rhoades’ conviction should not be equated with a presumption of his innocence. “In our decision on Rhoades’s postconviction appeal, we did not declare Rhoades innocent; we only determined that there was not sufficient evidence to support his guilty plea.”
     The Iowa Supreme Court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, but at that point, “the state dismissed the case,” according to Appel. “The discretionary decision of the state to dismiss the case does not establish actual innocence.”
     As such, the most Rhoades is entitled to is “a remand to the district court for further proceedings in which he can make such a showing [of innocence].”
     Appel hypothesized that the legislature put such restrictions on wrongful imprisonment compensation to grant the state the benefit of “finality” that comes with a plea bargain. “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,” Appel wrote.
     The judge acknowledged that barring anyone who enters a guilty plea from later recovering compensation “may produce results that are unattractive,” but he stressed that, “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.”
     “If we have missed the mark, “the legislature may correct it,” Appel said.
     While none of the seven justices dissented, Judge Thomas Waterman insinuated that the philosophical exploration of Rhoades’s plight in the majority’s 36-page opinion was overkill. “Nick Rhoades did in fact plead guilty,” he wrote in his one-paragraph special concurrence. “He therefore is ineligible for any recovery of money damages under the unambiguous language of the statute. No further analysis is required.”
     Justice Bruce Zager also submitted a one-paragraph special concurrence, in which he asserted that Rhoades was not entitled to recovery because “his guilty plea was supported by a factual basis … Rhoades’s valid entry of a factually sufficient guilty plea deprives him of the right to recover under the statute.”
     Rhoades’s attorney, Dan Johnston, did not respond to an email from Courthouse News seeking comment.
     The Iowa Attorney General’s press office also did not respond to a request for comment.

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