- Associated Press - Friday, April 15, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that defendants who enter plea agreements in criminal cases cannot later sue the state for wrongful imprisonment, even if their cases are eventually thrown out and charges are dropped.

In its interpretation of a 1997 Iowa law, the court acknowledged that it was significantly limiting the ability of criminal defendants who enter plea agreements to later seek damages for being wrongfully locked up if the conviction is reversed.

The ruling was made in the case of Nick Rhoades, 41, who was charged with criminal transmission of HIV in 2008 after having sex with a man he met in an Internet chat room. When the man later discovered that Rhoades had HIV, he reported it to the authorities.

Upon the advice of his attorney, Rhoades reached a deal with prosecutors under which he pleaded guilty to the charge. Nevertheless, the judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison, which was the maximum allowed. He served about a year in jail in 2009 before another judge reconsidered his case and reduced his sentence to probation and required Rhoades to register as a sex offender. Rhoades appealed his conviction in an effort to clear his name.

The Iowa Supreme Court in June 2014 found there was insufficient factual basis to support Rhoades’ plea and overturned his conviction. The court concluded that intimate contact itself is not enough to establish a factual basis that an exchange of bodily fluid took place or that Rhoades intentionally exposed his partner.

The case drew national attention as an increasing number of states passed laws making it a serious crime for people with HIV to intentionally engage in unprotected sex with someone and to risk transmitting the virus, which causes AIDS. Gay rights advocates and other critics said the laws were a sign that legislatures were ruled by fear and lack of knowledge about the virus and how it is transmitted.

Last May, Rhoades sued the state of Iowa, saying he had been wrongfully imprisoned. A judge dismissed the case in June and Rhoades appealed.

John McCormally, an attorney for the state, argued that Rhoades should not be eligible to recover damages because he had pleaded guilty and the 1997 statute excludes recovery of damages for those who admit guilt.

Rhoades’ attorney, Dan Johnston, argued that the court ruled his plea was invalid, which means it should be treated as if it never existed.

The justices unanimously concluded that they were required to follow the language the 1997 law, and the best interpretation “is that it categorically excludes all persons who plead guilty from Iowa’s wrongful imprisonment statute,” wrote Justice Brent Appel for the court.

“This interpretation leads to a narrow but not impractical or absurd result,” he said. “As we have stated before, if we have missed the mark, the Legislature may respond to correct it.”

The court rejected Rhoades’ contention that he had demonstrated that he’s innocent. It said that in overturning his conviction, it never concluded he was innocent - only that there was not enough evidence to support a guilty plea. It sent the case back to district court for further proceedings and state prosecutors, rather than trying the case, dropped the charges.

“The discretionary decision of the state to dismiss the case does not establish actual innocence,” Appel wrote.

Johnston said he was surprised by the decision and declined to further comment until he’s read it through.

If he had won Rhoades could have sought repayment of fines, court costs, attorney fees, payment of $50 for each day spent in jail and lost income up to $25,000.

Rhoades continues to pursue a legal malpractice lawsuit against his trial defense attorney.


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