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Belk v. State

Supreme Court of Iowa

December 15, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Benton County, Lars Anderson, Judge.

         An applicant in a postconviction-relief action appeals the district court's decision to grant the State's motion to dismiss. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

          John J. Bishop, Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Nicholas E. Siefert and John McCormally, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee.

          WIGGINS, Justice.

         A prisoner appeals the district court's dismissal of his amended application for postconviction relief. The State filed a motion to dismiss alleging the prisoner failed to make a viable claim under the postconviction-relief act. The district court agreed and found as a matter of law the prisoner had not stated a claim for postconviction relief under Iowa Code section 822.2(1)(a) (2013). Although we agree with the district court's reasoning to some extent, we conclude the prisoner should have been given the opportunity to pursue his claim under section 822.2(1)(e). Therefore, we reverse the district court's judgment and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Proceedings.

         On April 23, 2013, Laverne Edward Belk filed his application for postconviction relief. On September 3, Belk amended his application for postconviction relief. Pursuant to Iowa Code section 822.2(1)(a), he alleged that his sentence violated the United States and Iowa Constitutions, namely the Equal Protection Clause, prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, the Due Process Clause, and the Ex Post Facto Clause. Relevant to this appeal, the substance of Belk's amended application alleged the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) violated his liberty interest in obtaining parole because of the IDOC's failure to provide the sex offender treatment program (SOTP) in a timely manner.

         Specifically, Belk argued it was the policy of the IDOC to delay his access to SOTP until he was close to his tentative discharge date. He further contended he is currently eligible for parole but has no meaningful chance for parole unless the IDOC recommends parole without the SOTP prerequisite. According to Belk, his tentative discharge date is October 22, 2019, but the IDOC will not offer him SOTP until sometime in 2017. Belk argued the district court should require the IDOC to recommend him for parole without the condition of completing SOTP. He has requested SOTP to no avail prior to the filing of both his initial and amended applications.

         In response to Belk's amended application, the State filed a motion to dismiss. The substance of the motion is that an application under chapter 822 is not the proper vehicle to contest the denial of his parole by the Iowa Board of Parole (IBOP). The State also filed a motion for summary judgment.

         On July 3, 2014, the district court denied the State's motion to dismiss, finding Belk was not contesting the IBOP's agency action in denying him parole. Rather, the district court found Belk alleged the IDOC deprived him of his liberty or property interest that is actionable under the postconviction-relief act. The district court also denied the State's motion for summary judgment.

         The case proceeded to trial on October 13, 2015. At the onset of the trial, the State renewed its motion to dismiss and its motion for summary judgment. The court reserved ruling on these motions until it received the parties' posttrial briefs.

         The court entered its order on January 29, 2016. The court did not reach the merits of the claim. Rather, it decided the case by ruling on the State's renewed motion to dismiss. The court ruled as a matter of law that Belk had not stated a claim for postconviction relief under Iowa Code section 822.2(1)(a).

         Belk appeals.

         II. Issue.

         Belk raises one issue on appeal. He claims the district court erred in granting the State's motion to dismiss. He contends the IDOC's policy of refusing to provide timely SOTP substantially deprives him of his liberty interest, and thus we should allow him to pursue a remedy through postconviction relief.

         III. Standard of Review.

         A postconviction proceeding is a civil action. Mabrier v. State, 519 N.W.2d 84, 85 (Iowa 1994). We review civil motions to dismiss for correction of errors at law. Rees v. City of Shenandoah, 682 N.W.2d 77, 78 (Iowa 2004).

         IV. Analysis.

         If the application for postconviction relief on its face shows no right of recovery under any state of facts, the court should grant a motion to dismiss. Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.421(1)(f); see Rees, 682 N.W.2d at 79. Almost every case will survive a motion to dismiss under notice pleading. Rees, 682 N.W.2d at 79. The application does not have to allege ultimate facts supporting each element of the cause of action, but it "must contain factual allegations that give the [State] 'fair notice' of the claim asserted so the [State] can adequately respond to the application." Id. The application meets the "fair notice" requirement "if it informs the [State] of the [events] giving rise to the claim and of the claim's general nature." Id. We view the applicant's allegations "in the light most favorable to the [applicant] with doubts resolved in that party's favor." Geisler v. City Council of Cedar Falls, 769 N.W.2d 162, 165 (Iowa 2009) (quoting Haupt v. Miller, 514 N.W.2d 905, 911 (Iowa 1994)).

         The application alleges the district court has convicted and sentenced Belk for a public offense. The gravamen of his complaint is that his sentence violates a liberty interest: the IDOC's failure to provide him with SOTP in a timely manner prolongs his incarceration because without the completion of SOTP, he argues, the IDOC refuses to recommend him for parole.

         As a general doctrine, "[t]here is no constitutional or inherent right to be conditionally released from prison prior to the expiration of a valid sentence." State v. Cronkhite, 613 N.W.2d 664, 667 (Iowa 2000); accord State v. Wright, 309 N.W.2d 891, 894 (Iowa 1981) (holding the defendant does not "have a constitutional right to parole"); State v. Cole, 168 N.W.2d 37, 39-40 (Iowa 1969) (holding the granting of parole "is a matter of grace, favor, or forbearance" and "[i]t is not a matter of right"). The power to grant parole, much like the power to grant probation, is granted by statute-it is not a power the judiciary wields. See Wright, 309 N.W.2d at 894.

         Although prisoners do not have a constitutional right to parole, a state may choose-but is under no duty-to establish a parole system. Cronkhite, 613 N.W.2d at 667-68 (citing Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 488, 100 S.Ct. 1254, 1261 (1980); Greenholtz v. Inmates of Neb. Penal & Corr. Complex, 442 U.S. 1, 7, 99 S.Ct. 2100, 2104 (1979)); accord Heidelberg v. Ill. Prisoner Review Bd., 163 F.3d 1025, 1026 (7th Cir. 1998) (per curiam). "Under such a system, states have authority to shorten prison terms based on good behavior." Id. at 668 (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 557, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 2975 (1974)). "[O]nce a [state] scheme is implemented[, ] prisoners are imbued with a liberty interest to which the procedural protections of the Due Process Clause attach."[1] Id. (citing Vitek, 445 U.S. at 488-89, 100 S.Ct. at 1261).

         However, the mere presence of a parole system does not automatically mean a prisoner has a constitutionally protected liberty interest in parole.[2] Bd. of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369, 373, 107 S.Ct. 2415, 2418 (1987).[3] Rather, the existence of a protected liberty interest in parole depends on the state's parole statute. The following cases illustrate this principle.

         In Greenholtz, the United States Supreme Court held the Nebraska statute created an expectation of parole protected by the Due Process Clause. Greenholtz, 442 U.S. at 12, 99 S.Ct. at 2106. The Nebraska statute provided,

Whenever the Board of Parole considers the release of a committed offender who is eligible for release on parole, it shall order his release unless it is of the opinion that his release should be deferred because:
(a)There is a substantial risk that he will not conform to the conditions of parole;
(b)His release would depreciate the seriousness of his crime or promote ...

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