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Newton v. Missouri Department of Corrections

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, First Division

April 16, 2019

JOHN NEWTON, Appellant,

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri The Honorable Daniel Richard Green, Judge

          Before: Lisa White Hardwick, P.J., Edward R. Ardini, and Thomas N. Chapman, JJ.


         John Newton (Newton) appeals summary judgment by the Circuit Court of Cole County (Trial Court), denying his petition for declaratory judgment and granting judgment in favor of the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC). In his declaratory judgment action Newton claimed that the DOC miscalculated the beginning date of his 120-day period of confinement in which to complete the Institutional Treatment Center (ITC program) provided for under § 559.115.3; that this miscalculation prevented him from successfully completing the ITC program; and that he was therefore entitled to statutory discharge to probation or an order directing the Sentencing Court to have a hearing to determine whether he should be granted probation. Because there was no presently existing justiciable controversy which entitled Newton to declaratory relief, we affirm.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On November 14, 2014, the Vernon County Circuit Court revoked Newton's probation: sentenced him to three years in the DOC; and, pursuant to § 559.115.3, ordered that he participate in a DOC 120-day ITC program.[1] Newton was delivered to the DOC on the Vernon County charge on December 2, 2014. Newton initiated a request for disposition of his pending Christian County offenses; was transferred by writ to the Christian County Sheriff's custody; and, as a result, did not complete the diagnostic process necessary to be placed in the ITC program ordered in the Vernon County case. Newton did not therefore complete the ITC program ordered in the Vernon County case.

         On January 22, 2015, Newton appeared before the Circuit Court of Christian County (Sentencing Court) and pleaded guilty to felony stealing and was sentenced to seven years in the DOC; pleaded guilty to felony harassment of a person under age 17 by a person over age 21 and was sentenced to seven years in the DOC; and also pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor child molestation and one count of misdemeanor assault. All of the Christian County sentences were ordered to run concurrent to each other, and consecutive to the 3-year Vernon County sentence.[2] The Christian County Sentencing Court also ordered that Newton participate in an ITC program as provided for under § 559.115.3.

         On February 4, 2015, Newton was returned to the DOC; and on March 1, 2015, began participating in the ITC program ordered in the Christian County case.

         On March 19, 2015, even though Newton had not completed the ITC program, the Vernon County Circuit Court entered an order placing him on probation, subject to his release on the Christian County charges.[3]

         On April 15, 2015, the DOC issued a Court Report Investigation ("report") to the Christian County Sentencing Court, advising it of Newton's participation in the 120-day ITC program. In its report the DOC indicated that, because Newton had already been in its custody for the Vernon County charges, it had started the 120-day period on January 22, 2015 (the date he was sentenced in Christian County) and not on February 4, 2015 (the date Newton physically returned to the DOC). The report alerted the Sentencing Court that "Newton is expected to complete the [ITC] program on 5-26-15. His 120th day is 5-22-15. He will be unable to complete the program through no fault of his own and is therefore ineligible for a statutory discharge." The DOC report provided that Newton was "doing satisfactory [sic] in all areas of the [ITC] program"; but went on to recommend that probation be denied:

This officer has serious concerns with Newton being released to community supervision. His prior performance on probation was poor. He incurred multiple violations and citations, including several laws violations, including the present offenses, the Child Molestation offenses, and Damage to Jail Property. He tested positive on five occasions for alcohol and two times amphetamines, and eventually absconded from supervision. He continued to be with the victim of his Domestic Violence offense, despite directives that he was to have no contact with her. Newton's victimization of a juvenile is particularly troubling, especially as he took no accountability for his actions and denied that he had ever engaged in sexually offending behavior. Should Newton return to the community, this officer fears for his victim's safety, as well as the safety of other potential victims.
Therefore, it is this officer's respectful recommendation that Newton be denied probation.

         On April 24, 2015, the Christian County Sentencing Court entered its order denying Newton's release on probation. On June 1, 2015 (48 days after the report was issued, and 38 days after the court denied probation), Newton responded with a motion requesting that the Christian County Sentencing Court reconsider its order denying probation, claiming that his inability to complete the program was due to the DOC's improperly calculating his delivery date (the beginning date of his 120-day period). On June 3, 2015, after hearing argument, the Sentencing Court overruled Newton's motion because he had failed to complete the ITC program by May 22, 2015 (and by implication adopted the DOC's position that delivery occurred on sentencing). Additionally, the Sentencing Court found that it was "without jurisdiction to hear the motion pursuant to Section 559.115, because the 120-day time period has run."

         On June 29, 2015, Newton sought mandamus relief from the Missouri Court of Appeals to compel the Christian County Sentencing Court to award him probation. State ex rel. John Newton v. Hon. Laura Johnson, 496 S.W.3d 516 (Mo. App. S.D. 2016). Noting that it was undisputed that Newton had failed to complete the ITC program and that the decision to grant probation was, pursuant to § 559.115.3, within the Sentencing Court's discretion, the Southern District Court of Appeals denied issuance of a permanent writ. Id. at 522.

         On October 3, 2016, Newton filed (in the instant action) a petition for declaratory judgment against the DOC in the Circuit Court of Cole County (Trial Court). Newton complained that, but for the DOC's alleged miscalculation of the beginning date of his 120-day period, he would have been released on probation. Newton petitioned the Trial Court to enter a judgment "declaring that [he] be granted statutory release on probation"; and in his prayer asked the Trial Court to grant him "Declaratory Judgment with directions to the [Sentencing Court] to either grant him probation or, in the alternative, schedule a hearing within 30 days of this [Trial] Court's order becoming final, to determine whether probation is appropriate." [4]

         Both Newton and the DOC filed motions for summary judgment. The Trial Court granted the DOC's motion for summary judgment, and found that Newton's claim was not properly the subject of a declaratory judgment action; was past the statute of limitations for an action against the DOC; and that the DOC did not miscalculate Newton's 120-day period. This appeal followed.

         Standard of Review

         When considering appeals from summary judgment, our review is essentially de novo. ITT Commercial Fin. Corp. v. Mid-Am Marin Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993). "The criteria on appeal for testing the propriety of summary judgment are no different from those which should be employed by the trial court to determine the propriety of sustaining the motion initially." Id. "The Court will review the record in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was entered...[and] accord the non-movant the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the record." Id. "On appeal from a judge-tried case, the appellate court is concerned with the correctness of the result, not with the route taken to reach that result." Purcell v. Cape Girardeau County Comm'n, 322 S.W.3d 522, n.4 524 (Mo. banc 2010) (quoting Reinecke v. Kleinheider, 804 S.W.2d 838, 841 (Mo. App. E.D. 1991)). The Court must affirm the circuit court's judgment if it is correct on any ground supported by the record, regardless of whether the circuit court relied on that ground. Id. (citations omitted).


         In order for a court to find in favor of a petition for declaratory judgment:

"The court must be presented with: (1) a justiciable controversy that presents a real, substantial, presently-existing controversy admitting of specific relief, as distinguished from an advisory decree upon a purely hypothetical situation; (2) a plaintiff with a legally protectable interest at stake ...; (3) a controversy ripe for judicial determination; and (4) an inadequate remedy at law."

Missouri Ass'n of Nurse Anesthetists, Inc. v. State Bd. of Registration for the Healing Arts, 343 S.W.3d 348, 353-54 (Mo. banc 2011) (quoting Missouri Soybean Ass'n v. Missouri Clean Water Comm'n, 102 S.W.3d 10, 25 (Mo. banc 2003)).

         In the instant case, Newton contends that the DOC's determination of the beginning date of his 120-day period ordered by the Sentencing Court was incorrect and that this alleged miscalculation impaired his rights under § 559.115.[5] The DOC calculated the start date of his 120-day period on the date he was sentenced, January 22, 2015. Newton maintains that the DOC should have considered February 4, 2015 (the date he physically returned to the DOC) as the date he commenced his 120-day period, which would have provided him with an additional 13 days to complete the ITC program. Consequently, we consider whether Newton had a legally protected interest, if that interest was harmed by the DOC's action, and if so, whether that constitutes "a justiciable controversy that presents a real, substantial, presently-existing controversy admitting of specific relief." Missouri Soybean Ass'n, 102 S.W.3d at 25.

         Though ostensibly separate claims of error, Newton's first and third points on appeal both implicitly rely on his assertion that the trial court erred in upholding the DOC's determination of the start date of his 120-day ITC program (Point III), and erred in finding that Newton's claim failed to present a justiciable controversy (Point I). As discussed below, we find that the DOC did miscalculate the beginning date of Newton's 120-day ...

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