Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. No. 00-CF-1530. Honorable Richard W. Vidal, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Callum
Defendant, Chayse R. Keller, appeals from the dismissal of his "Petition for Declaratory Judgment." He asked the trial court to find that the Department of Corrections was misapplying the mandatory supervised release (MSR) provision of the Unified Code of Corrections (730 ILCS 5/5--8--1(d) (West 2000)) in interpreting his sentence. He now asserts that the court erred in dismissing his petition summarily pursuant to section 122--2.1 of the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (Act) (725 ILCS 5/122--2.1 (West 2002)). Because the "Petition" was, in substance as well as in form, a complaint for declaratory judgment, the court erred in reconstruing it as a post-conviction petition and in using the procedures of section 122--2.1 of the Act to dismiss it. We vacate the dismissal and remand for further proceedings on defendant's petition.
Defendant was charged by indictment with one count of armed robbery while armed with a firearm (720 ILCS 5/18--2(a)(2) (West 2000)). He pleaded guilty pursuant to a fully negotiated plea agreement in which the State agreed to amend the indictment to allege that defendant was armed with a dangerous weapon and to recommend a sentence of 12 years' imprisonment. Before accepting the plea, the court admonished defendant that, under the amended indictment, the sentencing range would be 6 to 30 years' imprisonment, whereas under the original indictment, both the maximum and minimum would be 15 years higher. It also asked defendant if he understood that "on a sentence to the Department of Corrections you would also serve 3 years of mandatory supervised release." Defendant stated that he understood, and the court accepted the plea. The court sentenced defendant to 12 years' imprisonment.
On May 2, 2003, defendant filed a document entitled "Petition for Declaratory Judgment." He named the warden of the Dixon Correctional Center, the chairman of the Prisoner Review Board, and the Director of Corrections as respondents, and asked the court to "find that respondents are misapplying the MSR statute contrary to legislative intent." He contended that "the sentencing judge must have intended that any imposition of MSR would be inclusive within petitione[r]'s sentence." (Emphasis in original.) The respondents interpreted his sentence to require him to serve his term of MSR after he completes his term of imprisonment, and their "misapplication and Administrative imposition of the 3 year term of MSR attached to the end of his judicially imposed sentence has effectively increased his sentence without due process of law." (Emphasis in original.) Defendant also contended that the Unified Code of Corrections' delegation to the Prisoner Review Board of the power to reimprison defendants who violate the terms of their MSR is unconstitutional. The latter contention seems to be a matter of pleading in the alternative: "Fundamental Fairness should apply and [the court should] either rule section 5--8--1(d) of the Unified Code of Corrections unconstitutional or have the petitioner's sentence modified [so that his term of MSR is included within his term of imprisonment, rather than added to the end of it]."
The court summarily dismissed the petition pursuant to section 122--2.1 of the Act. Defendant appeals, contending that the dismissal was procedurally improper under the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/1--101 et seq. (West 2002)).
Whether the trial court followed the proper procedure in dismissing defendant's pleading is an issue of law, and therefore our review is de novo. See Woods v. Cole, 181 Ill. 2d 512, 516 (1998).
Propriety of the Recharacterization as a Post-conviction Petition
To determine what procedure the court should have applied to defendant's pleading, we must first determine how the court should have classified it. The State cites People v. Helgesen, 347 Ill. App. 3d 672, 677 (2004), for the proposition that the substance of a pleading, not its title, should determine its classification. It argues that defendant's pleading is in substance a post-conviction petition and that the court was right to treat it as such. We disagree. We need not address the finer points of when the substance of a pleading justifies its reclassification as a post-conviction petition: defendant's pleading conforms in substance to the requirements for a complaint for declaratory judgment far better than it does to those for a post-conviction petition. The core contention of defendant's pleading is that the Department of Corrections has misinterpreted his sentence. Were this so, the remedy would not be under the Act. The Act provides a vehicle for a prisoner's claim "that in the proceedings which resulted in his or her conviction there was a substantial denial of his or her rights under [the United States or Illinois Constitution]." (Emphasis added.) 725 ILCS 5/122--1(a) (West 2002). Defendant's primary claim is not cognizable under the Act because it does not relate to any flaw in the proceedings before his conviction. However, the "essential requirements of a declaratory judgment action are: (1) a plaintiff with a legal tangible interest; (2) a defendant having an opposing interest; and (3) an actual controversy between the parties concerning such interests." Beahringer v. Page, 204 Ill. 2d 363, 372 (2003); see 735 ILCS 5/2--701(a) (West 2002) ("the court may, in cases of actual controversy, make binding declarations of rights, *** including the determination *** of the construction of any statute"). Both defendant's primary claim and his secondary claim, regarding the constitutionality of section 5--8--1(d) of the Unified Code of Corrections, are cognizable in an action for declaratory judgment. Thus, the substance of the pleading matches its form, and the trial court erred in recharacterizing it as a post-conviction petition.
Propriety of Summary Dismissal
Because the court should have treated defendant's pleading as a complaint for declaratory judgment, an action under the Code, the issue presented here is similar to those we considered in People v. Marino, 349 Ill. App. 3d 197 (2004), People v. Winfrey, 347 Ill. App. 3d 987 (2004), and People v. Pearson, 345 Ill. App. 3d 191 (2003). In those cases, we held that, unlike the Act, the Code does not allow for a trial court to dismiss a proceeding on its merits sua sponte and without giving the petitioner notice of the impending dismissal and an opportunity to be heard on the issues upon which the court would base the dismissal. Marino, 349 Ill. App. 3d at 200; Winfrey, 347 Ill. App. 3d at 989; Pearson, 345 Ill App. 3d at 194-95; see also People v. Shellstrom, 345 Ill. App. 3d 175, 177 (2003) (applying portions of the Code specific to mandamus actions). The reasoning in those cases applies here as well. An action for declaratory judgment is simply a form of civil action for which the Code explicitly provides. 735 ILCS 5/2--701 (West 2002). The only procedural provision specific to the declaratory judgment law is that "if a ...