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State, ex rel. Ford v. Schnell

Supreme Court of Minnesota

September 11, 2019

State of Minnesota, ex rel. Antwone Ford, Appellant,
v.
Paul Schnell, Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent.

          Court of Appeals, Office of Appellate Courts

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Amy Lawler, Assistant Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Rachel E. Bell-Munger, Kelly S. Kemp, Assistant Attorneys General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The claims presented by appellant's petition for a writ of habeas corpus are justiciable.

         2. A writ of habeas corpus is an appropriate procedural remedy when an agency fails to adhere to binding judicial precedent and, as a result, restrains a petitioner's liberty.

         3. Because the Department of Corrections failed to adhere to the rule of law announced in State ex rel. Marlowe v. Fabian, 755 N.W.2d 792 (Minn.App. 2008), the district court properly granted the writ and imposed an appropriate remedy.

          OPINION

          ANDERSON, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Antwone Ford petitioned the district court for a writ of habeas corpus, asserting that respondent Commissioner of Corrections unlawfully extended his incarceration for approximately 16 months after his conditional-release term began. Specifically, Ford asserted that the Department of Corrections (Department) failed to approve housing in a community in which he could be supervised. Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court determined that the Department failed to adhere to the law announced in State ex rel. Marlowe v. Fabian, 755 N.W.2d 792 (Minn.App. 2008), and granted Ford's petition for a writ, ordering the Department to either approve housing for Ford or modify the terms of his conditional release. The court of appeals vacated the district court's order as moot. State ex rel. Ford v. Roy, No. A17-1895, 2018 WL 3097717, at *8 (Minn.App. June 25, 2018). Because we conclude that Ford's claims are justiciable, and to provide Ford with timely relief, we issued an order reversing the court of appeals and reinstating the district court's order. State ex rel. Ford v. Schnell, No. A17-1895, Order at 2-3 (Minn. filed May 10, 2019). The following opinion sets forth the basis for our decision.

         FACTS

         This appeal raises issues regarding the supervision of offenders in the community. Generally, a prison sentence in Minnesota consists of two terms. The "term of imprisonment" is typically the first two-thirds of the sentence, with a supervised-release term comprising the remaining one-third of the sentence. See Minn. Stat. § 244.101, subd. 1 (2018); see also Heilman v. Courtney, 926 N.W.2d 387, 394 (Minn. 2019) (explaining that "felons generally serve sentences in two parts"). Certain classes of offenders, including some sex offenders, also must complete an additional term of "conditional release." See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 609.3455, subds. 6-7 (2018). "[C]onditional release of sex offenders is governed by provisions relating to supervised release." Id., subd. 8(a) (2018); see also State ex rel. Duncan v. Roy, 887 N.W.2d 271, 272 n.1 (Minn. 2016) ("Functionally, conditional release is identical to supervised release."). If an inmate violates the release conditions, which are imposed by the Department, that release can be revoked and the offender returned to prison. Minn. Stat. § 244.05, subd. 3(2) (2018).

         While on supervised or conditional release, an offender is on some form of supervision, either standard or intensive. See id., subd. 6(a) (2018). If an offender is designated as a Level III sex offender, intensive supervised release is required. Id. This form of supervision involves rigorous conditions, ranging from electronic surveillance, house arrest, and curfew conditions, to random checks, searches, and drug tests, to prohibitions on internet access or access to social media. See id., subd. 6(b)-(c) (2018). Offenders subject to intensive supervised release must have an approved residence during the release term because house-arrest conditions are necessary. Accordingly, the Department's policies require offenders on intensive supervised release to reside in an agent-approved residence.

         We now turn to the facts of Ford's case.

         In 2008, Ford was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, see Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(b) (2006), in Blue Earth County. The district court sentenced Ford to three years of imprisonment, stayed for 15 years, and imposed a 5-year conditional-release term. In 2013, Ford's sentence was executed, and he was committed to the custody of the Department.[1] In January 2014, the Department placed Ford on supervised release. At first he lived in a Department-funded residence in Mankato, but within a few months, he relocated to a private residence.

         In August 2014, the Department revoked Ford's supervised release for a violation of his release conditions. His supervised-release term expired in February 2015, and he became eligible for conditional release. On the day Ford was released from prison, however, he was transferred to the Blue Earth County jail because he did not have approved housing in Blue Earth County. Although Ford searched for housing and made phone calls from the jail, he was unable to find approved housing. The Department revoked his release for 90 days and Ford was returned to prison.

         In June 2015, the Department assigned Ford to another 90 days of incarceration because he still did not have approved housing in Blue Earth County. Although Ford requested a placement in Ramsey County, the county declined to provide courtesy supervision due to Ford's lack of historical ties to that area.

         In August 2015, Ford was released from prison to the Renville County jail for chemical dependency treatment, which he completed at the end of October 2015. He was returned to prison for 179 days because he still did not have approved housing in Blue Earth County. During this period of time, the Department unsuccessfully attempted to arrange several housing placements for Ford, including with his aunt in Wisconsin, his previous landlord in Mankato, his mother and sister in Fargo, and his brother in Moorhead. Ultimately, the Department concluded that Ford's status as a Level III sex offender made finding approved housing options difficult.

         In April 2016, the Department extended Ford's incarceration by another 150 days. Two possible housing placements in Ramsey County were rejected due to "lack of ties and a concentration of [level-three] offenders" in the area. The Department was aware that Ford wished to return to the residence in Mankato, but a Mankato city ordinance prevented the placement.[2]

         In May 2016, Ford petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in district court, arguing that the Department unlawfully extended his incarceration based on an illegal city ordinance. The district court denied Ford's petition because he did not, and could not, join the City of Mankato as a party to the habeas petition. Ford appealed.

         The court of appeals reversed. State ex rel. Ford v. Roy, No. A16-1769, Order (Minn.App. filed Feb. 1, 2017). Relying on State ex rel. Marlowe v. Fabian, 755 N.W.2d 792, 795 (Minn.App. 2008), the court of appeals concluded that although the Department was not required to find approved housing for Ford, it was required to provide assistance, which may require consideration of housing options for Ford in counties other than Blue Earth County. Roy, No. A16-1769, Order at 4. The court of appeals remanded the case to the district court "to permit the [Department] to develop the record with respect to what other housing options, including halfway houses, are available to Ford," and warned that if no suitable housing options are available, the Department was "required to consider restructuring the conditions of release." Id. (emphasis added). The Department did not petition for our review.

         On February 22, 2017, two days before the remanded case was scheduled for a hearing and two years after Ford began his conditional-release term, the Department released Ford from incarceration to Alpha House, a residential sex offender treatment program and residence in Hennepin County. The Department argued that Ford's release to Alpha House made his request for habeas corpus relief moot. Ford asserted that his habeas petition was not moot because the district court should still determine whether the Department "must consider restructuring the conditions of release to allow him to be released either to the [intensive supervised release] house in Mankato or to any other suitable residence regardless of [the] county." The district court ultimately proceeded with the evidentiary hearing based on the instructions from the court of appeals. Moreover, Ford's release to Alpha House, which the district court did not consider to be a permanent residence, did not make Ford's claims moot. The district court explained:

It is unclear how long [Ford] will be permitted to remain there; it is also unclear what will happen to him when he can no longer remain there. Because he remains subject to being re-incarcerated for lack of approved housing, and because his present housing situation is contingent, uncertain, and temporary at best, the question of what the ...

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