Legislation Introduced to Limit Damages for Unjust Imprisonment Claims

On March 31, 2015, on behalf of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia, the Chairman of the D.C. Council introduced the Unjust Imprisonment Amendment Act of 2015 (B21-150). The preamble to this proposed legislation states that it is intended “[t]o amend the District of Columbia Unjust Imprisonment Act of 1980 to limit damages that may be awarded for an unjust imprisonment and to reduce damages by any amount already paid by the United States for a claim arising from the same occurrence.” B21-150, Preamble. The legislation was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

The District of Columbia Unjust Imprisonment Act of 1980 is codified at D.C. Code §§ 2-421 et seq. It provides that any person who has been “unjustly convicted of and subsequently imprisoned for a criminal offense contained in the District of Columbia Official Code may present a claim for damages against the District of Columbia.” D.C. Code § 2-421. To prove a claim for unjust imprisonment, the claimant must provide adequate proof. Id. § 2-422. First, he must show “[t]hat his conviction has been reversed or set aside on the ground that he is not guilty of the offense of which he was convicted, or on new trial or rehearing was found not guilty of such offense, as appears from the record or certificate of the court setting aside or reversing such conviction, or that he has been pardoned upon the stated ground of innocence and unjust conviction.” Id. Second, he must show “[t]hat, based upon clear and convincing evidence, he did not commit any of the acts charged or his acts or omissions in connection with such charge constituted no offense against the United States or the District of Columbia the maximum penalty for which would equal or exceed the imprisonment served and he did not, by his misconduct, cause or bring about his own prosecution.” Id. A claim generally is not permitted by a person whose conviction resulted from a guilty plea. Id. § 2-425. Persons who prove a valid claim may be awarded compensatory damages but not punitive damages. Id. § 2-423.

The Unjust Imprisonment Amendment Act of 2015 would amend the law by establishing a cap on damages in unjust imprisonment cases; specifically, it would limit damages to a maximum of $50,000 per 12-month period of incarceration. B21-150, Sec. 2. It would also require an award of damages to be reduced by any amount previously paid by the United States as compensation for the same conviction and imprisonment. Id.

Substantially identical legislation was introduced in 2011, but no hearings or votes were held to consider it.