Has all Heck broken loose? Examining Heck's favorable-termination requirement in the Second Circuit after Poventud v. City of New York.

Author:Collins, John P.
Position::Introduction through II. The Circuit Split over Custody and Heck's Favorable Termination Requirement B. Circuit Courts Finding That the Spencer 'Majority' Permits Exceptions to the Heck Bar in Limited Circumstances 4. The Fourth Circuit, p. 451-475

Introduction I. Background: The Statutory Framework and Supreme Court Jurisprudence A. Section 1983 and Habeas 1. Section 1983 2. Habeas 3. Collisions at the Intersection B. Heck and Spencer 1. Heck v. Humphrey 2. Spencer v. Kemna II. The Circuit Split Over Custody and Heck's Favorable Termination Requirement A. Circuit Courts Finding that Custody Is Irrelevant Under Heck's Binding Precedent 1. The First Circuit 2. The Fifth Circuit 3. The Third Circuit 4. The Eighth Circuit B. Circuit Courts Finding that the Spencer "Majority" Permits Exceptions to the Heck Bar in Limited Circumstances 1. The Eleventh Circuit 2. The Ninth Circuit 3. The Sixth Circuit 4. The Fourth Circuit 5. The Tenth Circuit 6. The Seventh Circuit C. Heck in the Second Circuit 1. Jenkins v. Haubert 2. Leather v. Eyck 3. Green v. Montgomery 4. Huang ex rel. Yu v. Johnson III. Poventud v. City of New York A. Background B. Poventud I--The. District Court C. Poventud II-- Exception to the Heck Bar Broadly Construed D. Poventud III--Vacatur and Narrower Ground 1. The Majority Opinion 2. Judge Jacobs' Principal Dissent IV. The Poventud II Panel Decision Incorrectly Expanded the Limited Exceptions Previously Recognized by the Second Circuit A. These Narrow Interpretations Accord with Heck B. Jenkins, Leather, and Green Did not Create an Absolute Right to File Suit Under Section 1983 C. Even Though Huang Expands Upon the Limited Exceptions in Jenkins, Leather, and Green, it Does not Permit Section 1983 Suits Whenever Habeas Relief Is Unavailable D. Lower Courts Should Apply the Second Circuit's Heck Precedent Narrowly Going Forward Conclusion INTRODUCTION

Imagine yourself in the shoes of Marcos Poventud. You have spent the last nine years in prison because of a conviction tainted by the police department's failure to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence. (1) During those nine years, you were abused, physically and mentally. (2) Now, although your conviction was vacated, the prosecution successfully argued that you should remain incarcerated pending your new trial. (3) The prosecution is also appealing the vacatur, and who knows when or how the appeals process will end. (4) Remaining in prison for the foreseeable future seems inevitable. But, you see a light at the end of the tunnel. The prosecution has offered you a plea. (5) Agreeing to it will require that you admit to being involved in the armed robbery, a crime against which you asserted your innocence at trial, but it will also secure your immediate release. (6) The choice before you seems simple, right?

Surely this is what Marcos Poventud was thinking when he accepted the prosecution's plea offer. What likely had not crossed his mind, however, was the impact of the plea on his ability to seek damages for a violation of his constitutional rights under Brady v. Maryland. (7) At its core, the problem with Poventud's suit for damages arose from the oft-debated intersection of the two most common sources of federal prisoners' rights litigation, habeas corpus and 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983 ([section] 1983). (8) Supreme Court precedent prevents a party from asserting a [section] 1983 claim when success on that claim necessarily implies the invalidity of an outstanding conviction. (9) That type of challenge is more properly considered a collateral attack traditionally reserved for a habeas corpus petition. In Heck v. Humphrey (10) and Spencer v. Kemna, (11) the Supreme Court grappled with this overlap, but concurrences and dicta-parsing split the lower courts as to whether Heck always required the current or former prisoner to show a favorable-termination when seeking damages under [section] 1983, or whether courts could recognize exceptions to Heck's rule in certain circumstances that were not explicitly considered by the Court. (12) Poventud had secured a vacatur of one conviction, only to subsequently plead guilty to the same facts and circumstances, albeit to a lesser-charged offense. He was no longer in custody, so habeas relief was no longer available. Did his desire to achieve freedom from a corrupted conviction cost him his opportunity to receive damages for a constitutional violation?

This was the question before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The facts, circumstances, and questions of law are nothing short of rare and exceptional; indeed, they are reminiscent of those often found in first-year law school exams. But the real-world implications concern an issue of profound importance: the right to redress for a constitutional violation. Despite the obvious significance of this issue, the circuit courts are split on whether there are any exceptions to Heck's seemingly absolute favorable-termination requirement. Initially, a sharply divided three-judge panel recognized the most expansive exception to Heck to date: an absolute right to file suit under [section] 1983 if a person is no longer in custody and therefore has no remedy in habeas. (13) This decision launched a rehearing en banc, a procedure in the Second Circuit that is as rare and exceptional as the case itself. (14) Ultimately, the en banc court decided the case on a narrower ground, finding that Marcos Poventud's [section] 1983 suit did not, in fact, imply the invalidity of his conviction by guilty plea, thus removing the case from Hecks purview. (15) But the court never reached the soundness of the original panel's analysis of Second Circuit case law. (16) It remains unclear in the Second Circuit whether a plaintiffs custodial status affects his ability to seek damages for constitutional violations and, if so, to what extent.

Part I of this Article reviews the historical scope and function of 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983 and 28 U.S.C. [section] 2254 in prisoners' civil rights litigation. Part I additionally describes the manner in which the Supreme Court in Heck and Spencer refined that relationship to alleviate issues of potentially overlapping jurisdiction. Part II explores the split between those circuits holding that Hecks bar applies if success on a [section] 1983 claim for civil damages would necessarily imply the invalidity of an outstanding conviction regardless of whether the claimant is still in custody, and those that have circumscribed Hecks holding in favor of Justice Souter's narrower view in Spencer. (17) Part II further examines the Heck bar as applied in the Second Circuit prior to Poventud. Part III analyzes the Second Circuit's most recent application of Heck in both the original panel and subsequent en banc decisions in Poventud. (18) Part IV considers the state of [section] 1983, Heck, and custody in the Second Circuit in the aftermath of Poventud. Bringing this analysis to bear on Poventud II's holding reveals that the decision was an incorrect application of already flawed circuit law. However, this Part proposes that yosi-Heck Second Circuit case law can be read to permit limited exceptions to the favorable-termination requirement without running afoul of Hecks core concerns.

  1. Background: The Statutory Framework and Supreme Court Jurisprudence

    Before one can understand the Supreme Court's attempt to avoid collisions at "the intersection of the two most fertile sources of federal-court prisoner litigation," (19) it is critical to examine both statutes and the intended function and scope of each. Following a brief discussion of [section] 1983 and habeas, this Part discusses the Supreme Court's holdings in Heck and Spencer, paying particular attention to the interplay between the majority in Heck and Justice Souter's concurring opinion in Spencer.

    1. Section 1983 and Habeas

      1. Section 1983

        The Civil Rights Act of 1871, commonly referred to as the Ku Klux Klan Act, codifed at 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983, created a cause of action against those who, acting under color of state law, deprived citizens of their rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution. (20) It reads in relevant part:

        Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress ... (21) The Reconstruction-era statute's "historical catalyst" was the widespread "campaign of violence and deception in the South, fomented by the Ku Klux Klan, which was denying decent citizens their civil and political rights." (22) To that end, [section] 1983's purpose was "to interpose the federal courts between the States and the people, as guardians of the people's federal rights." (23) To ensure those disenfranchised by the States could seek redress, Congress broadly...

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