Nahmod Law

A Section 1983 Primer (10): Statutes of Limitations and Accrual After Heck v. Humphrey

In my post of October 27, 2011,  entitled A Section 1983 Primer (5): Statutes of Limitations, I blogged about statutes of limitations in section 1983 cases. There I briefly discussed the complicated issues of (1) choosing the right state statute of limitations, (2) accrual of section 1983 claims and (3) when section 1983 claims are tolled.

In the course of my discussion of accrual, I wrote the following:

There is a special, and quite complicated, accrual rule, set out in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), that applies where the plaintiff has a prior conviction whose validity might be implicated by a successful section 1983 damages action. In such cases, the section 1983 claim does not accrue until the underlying conviction is overturned or vacated. See also the important 2007 decision in Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384 (2007), dealing with Heck, accrual and section 1983 false arrest/imprisonment claims.

I want to elaborate on this a bit more.

The Basics of Heck v. Humphrey

At the outset, it is crucial to understand the important distinction between federal habeas corpus and section 1983 claims. Federal habeas corpus challenges, brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. sec. 2254, are challenges to the fact or duration of confinement and exhaustion of state judicial remedies is required .

In contrast, section 1983 claims are directed against conditions of confinement (such as allegedly inadequate medical care that violates the Eighth Amendment), and exhaustion of state judicial remedies is not required. See my post of November 29, 2009, on the seminal decision in Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961).

In Heck, the Court dealt with an issue at the “intersection” of habeas corpus and section 1983. The best way to get at this “intersection” is with two hypotheticals.

First, suppose a section 1983 plaintiff has been convicted of a crime such as arson and that conviction has not been overturned in state court. The plaintiff sues law enforcement officers for damages under section 1983 alleging that they violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by manufacturing evidence against him and using that evidence to convict him. According to the Supreme Court in Heck (opinion by Justice Scalia) that section 1983 cause of action has not yet accrued.

Why not? Because that claim, if successful, would undermine the validity of plaintiff’s conviction. Only if and when the conviction is overturned would that cause of action accrue and the applicable statute of limitations begin to run.

Second, and in contrast, consider a hypothetical that is the same as the first but now the plaintiff, seeking damages under section 1983, alleges that law enforcement officers used excessive force in arresting him in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In this case, the cause of action accrued at the time the challenged conduct occurred.

Why? Because success of the plaintiff’s section 1983 claim would not necessarily call into question the validity of plaintiff’s conviction for arson.


1. Unlike in my hypotheticals, it is not always easy to determine whether success on a plaintiff’s section 1983 claim would necessarily undermine the validity of an existing conviction. This uncertainty often leads to a plaintiff’s filing the section 1983 claim sooner rather than later, so as to prevent expiration of the statute of limitations.

2. Certain section 1983 claims raise especially difficult issues in this regard. Consider, for example, an existing conviction for resisting arrest and a section 1983 Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. The latter, if successful, may or may not undermine the validity of the resisting arrest conviction, depending on the factual and legal circumstances.

3. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that Heck applies only to a conviction existing at the time the section 1983 lawsuit is filed.

Heck does not apply where there is no conviction, a possible conviction or even a likely conviction. This was made clear by the Court in Wallace, mentioned above.

Written by snahmod

June 17, 2013 at 5:51 pm

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