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Sandknop v. Missouri Department of Corrections

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 5, 2019

Christopher Sandknop Plaintiff- Appellant
Missouri Department of Corrections Defendant Brian O'Connell, Individually and Official Capacity Defendant-Appellee Missouri Department of Corrections, Board of Probation and Parole Defendant Aaron Jarrett, Individually and Official Capacity Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: April 16, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Springfield

          Before COLLOTON, GRUENDER, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.


         Christopher Sandknop filed a pro se § 1983 claim against the Missouri Department of Corrections ("MDOC"), the warden of the Ozark Correctional Center ("OCC"), and a former probation and parole officer at the OCC, alleging that he was unlawfully deprived of his liberty as a result of statements made by the former probation and parole officer to a local state court. The district court[1] concluded that the warden and the officer were entitled to absolute and qualified immunity and dismissed Sandknop's suit.[2] Sandknop now appeals with the assistance of pro bono counsel. We affirm.

         I. Background

         On July 12, 2013, Christopher Sandknop pled guilty to driving while intoxicated. Sandknop had a number of prior convictions and was considered a "chronic offender" under section 577.001(5) of the Missouri Statutes Annotated. The state circuit judge sentenced Sandknop to a mandatory ten-year term of imprisonment. Notwithstanding the mandatory term, under Missouri law the court was authorized to suspend the sentence of a chronic offender to allow the offender to participate in a custodial substance abuse treatment program. See Mo. Stat. Ann. § 217.362(2). Armed with this authority, the state court suspended Sandknop's sentence and ordered him to complete the substance abuse program.

         A series of Missouri cases have addressed whether and to what extent offenders who successfully complete the substance abuse program are entitled to release on probation. The abuse treatment program created by the MDOC lasts for twelve months, even though the statute at issue allows the court to impose a sentence requiring the defendant to participate in an "institutional drug or alcohol treatment for a period of at least twelve and no more than twenty-four months, as well as a term of incarceration." Id. The statute further provides that when the defendant completes the program "the board of probation and parole shall advise the sentencing court of an offender's probationary release date thirty days prior to release. If the court determines that probation is not appropriate the court may order the execution of the offender's sentence." Id. at § 217.362(3). Despite the language of the statute, some trial courts in Missouri concluded that they were authorized to "retain jurisdiction" and order that an inmate could be held up to the twenty-four month maximum treatment period found in section 217.362(2). See Salm v. Mennemeyer, 423 S.W.3d 319, 320 (Mo. App. 2014) (describing trial court order purporting to retain jurisdiction under that section). The Missouri Court of Appeals held in Salm that section 217.362 did not authorize that approach. Id.

         Sandknop completed the substance abuse treatment program after Salm was decided and attempted to secure his release. In response, the trial court entered an order "retaining jurisdiction" over Sandknop under the same theory that was ruled impermissible in Salm. Sandknop alleges that the court issued the order because a probation and parole officer at the OCC informed the court in an ex parte communication that it was entitled to do so, even though the opinion in Salm had warned the MDOC that its "court report investigations should no longer advise that section 217.362 allows trial courts to retain jurisdiction up to twenty-four months." Id. at 321 n.4.

          Pursuant to the state court's order, Sandknop was held for several additional months at the OCC after completing his treatment program. Sandknop sought a writ of mandamus compelling his release. The MDOC asked the Missouri Court of Appeals not to issue the writ due to a separate statutory provision stating that "[n]o chronic offender shall be eligible for parole or probation until he or she has served a minimum of two years imprisonment." See Mo. Stat. Ann. § 577.023.6(4) (2012) (recodified at Mo. Stat. Ann. § 577.010.6(5)). The court of appeals noted that the trial court had not purported to exercise jurisdiction under section 577.023, declined to address the interplay between the two provisions, and issued a writ compelling the trial court to comply with section 217.362. See Sandknop v. Goldman, 450 S.W.3d 499, 503 (Mo.Ct.App. 2014).

         On remand the trial court amended its previous order to add a reference to section 577.023. The Supreme Court of Missouri later explained that a defendant is only eligible for release pursuant to section 217.362(3) after the defendant has served the two-year minimum specified in section 577.023. See State ex rel. Hodges v. Asel, 460 S.W.3d 926, 929 (Mo. banc 2015).

         Sandknop brought this § 1983 suit alleging that he was unconstitutionally deprived of his liberty because of the officer's ex parte communication to the state court stating that section 217.362 permitted Sandknop's continued detention. He also brought state-law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment. His § 1983 claims were dismissed on absolute and qualified immunity grounds. The district court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims. Sandknop appeals.

         II. Discussion

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must provide "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). We construe pro se complaints "liberally," but the complaint must still allege sufficient facts to support the claims advanced. See Stone v. Harry, 364 F.3d 912, 914 (8th Cir. 2004). We review de novo a district court's grant of dismissal based on absolute immunity or qualified immunity. See Greenman v. Jessen, 787 F.3d 882, 887 (8th Cir. 2015); Buser v. Raymond, 476 F.3d 565, 568 (8th Cir. 2007). Dismissing a case on a 12(b)(6) motion for reasons of qualified immunity is appropriate when the ...

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