Section 1983, Statutes of Limitation and Accrual: Recent Circuit Decisions Applying Heck v. Humphrey
This post, which is a follow-up, contains four recent circuit court decisions that apply Heck.
Considerably more information on this topic may be found in chapter 9 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2013, West), also available on Westlaw as CIVLIBLIT.
The Fifth Circuit: What Is A Favorable Termination?
After the plaintiff served one-third of his original community supervision period for the illegal possession of child pornography, a Texas trial court terminated the remainder of his probationary term, dismissed the proceedings and discharged him from any penalties or disabilities resulting from the offense. The question was whether this constituted a favorable termination under Heck so that the plaintiff’s § 1983 lawsuit against the police officers for allegedly engaging in an illegal search of his home and obtaining the evidence used against him could go forward.
According to the Fifth Circuit, the answer was NO. The trial court’s order did not say that it invalidated his conviction and it did not include express language dismissing his indictment, withdrawing his guilty plea, setting aside the verdict or restoring his civil liberties. Also, the fact that the plaintiff was no longer in custody and thus could not seek habeas corpus relief did not excuse him from Heck’s favorable termination requirement. Morris v. McAllester, 702 F.3d 187 (5th Cir. 2012).
The Seventh Circuit: The Availability Of Collateral Relief During Incarceration
The plaintiff, who had pleaded guilty to attempted burglary in state court and never sought to challenge his conviction through habeas corpus, filed a § 1983 damages action against Illinois correctional officers alleging a violation of his right of access to the courts. The defendants had allegedly denied him the library materials necessary to file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea and to research grounds for appealing his sentence. Plaintiff was paroled from prison in November 2011 and the mandatory supervised release portion of his sentence was scheduled to expire in November 2012. The defendants argued that Heck barred plaintiff’s claim because he had not received a favorable termination and, moreover, the unavailability of collateral relief to plaintiff at this point was irrelevant.
Agreeing that Heck barred the plaintiff’s claim, the Seventh Circuit, first, reasoned that since the plaintiff sought the library materials in order to withdraw his guilty plea, and that this required him to show there was merit to the claim that he should have been able to withdraw the plea, success on that claim would imply the invalidity of the judgment of conviction against him. Second, there was nothing that prevented the plaintiff from seeking collateral review of his conviction during his period of incarceration and mandatory supervised relief, and he offered no excuse for his failure to do so.
“[W]e hold that Heck applies where a § 1983 plaintiff could have sought collateral relief at an earlier time but declined the opportunity and waited until collateral relief became unavailable before suing.” Burd v. Sessler, 702 F.3d 429, 436 (7th Cir. 2012)(emphasis in original).
The Eighth Circuit: What Is A Favorable Termination?
In Marlowe v. Fabian, 676 F.3d 743 (8th Cir. 2012), the plaintiff, convicted of criminal sexual conduct, sued correctional officials for allegedly wrongfully imprisoning him for 375 days beyond the date on which he became eligible for supervised release. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal for failure to satisfy Heck’s favorable termination requirement. The Minnesota court of appeals decision remanding his habeas claim to the trial court was not a favorable termination because all it did was direct the department of corrections to consider restructuring the plaintiff’s release plan so that he could possibly be released from prison later.. This was not an invalidation of his conviction or incarceration for Heck purposes.
The Ninth Circuit: What If Another’s Conviction Is At Issue?
Does Heck apply even where the success of a plaintiff’s § 1983 claim would imply the invalidity of another’s conviction? According to the Ninth Circuit in Beets v. County of Los Angeles, 669 F.3d 1038, 1046 (9th Cir. 2012), the answer is sometimes YES.
In this case, the plaintiffs alleged that a police officer used excessive force when he shot and killed their son. However, the decedent’s accomplice was convicted on several counts, including aiding and abetting in the assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon, and the jury had determined that the police officer acted within the scope of his employment and did not use excessive force. Thus, a verdict in plaintiffs’ favor would tend to undermine the accomplice’s conviction. In addition, the accomplice had challenged the police officer’s conduct in her criminal trial and her interests were not inconsistent with those of the plaintiffs.
The Ninth Circuit relied on its decision in Smith v. City of Hemet, 394 F.3d 689 (9th Cir. 2005) (en banc). “Our choice of language [in City of Hemet] suggests that the Heck preclusion doctrine may apply to civil actions brought by individuals other than the convicted criminal if such application does not otherwise violate any constitutional principles.” Moreover, the plaintiffs reasonably should have expected to be bound by the jury’s decision in the accomplice’s case: the decedent and she were accomplices, she was convicted of assaulting the police officer with a deadly weapon and a single action—shooting the decedent—was crucial to her conviction and the plaintiffs’ § 1983 excessive force claim.