Favorable Termination After Freedom: Why Heck's Rule Should Reign, Within Reason

AuthorThomas Stephen Schneidau

The author extends his deepest thanks to his wife, Amanda, daughter, Annie, and son, Thomas Joseph, for their great love and devotion. High thanks are also due to Professors Howard L'Enfant and John Devlin for their oversight and guidance during the production process. Finally, the author is indebted to Wallace and Eva Schneidau and Mary Sullivan for their keen editing skills.

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I Introduction

An alleged violation of an individual's legal rights demands an opportunity for redress. There can be no more equitable proposition than this, for right and remedy go hand in hand. In a democratic society, however, the availability and scope of a remedy is always commensurate with the value society places on the right at stake. The significant value the American people place on protecting their federal rights is reflected in 42 U.S.C. § 1983.1 The statute provides litigants an avenue by which they may pursue a civil remedy against actors who, under color of state law, violate their federal rights.2 The United States Supreme Court has described the purpose of § 1983 as "interpos[ing] the federal courts between the States and the people, as guardians of the people's federal rights."3 Section 1983 creates a "species of tort liability" to addrests his end.4

A peculiar and problematic situation may arise, however, when a § 1983 plaintiff has a criminal conviction that has never been Page 648 invalidated. Consider a scenario imagined by Justice Scalia: an individual is convicted of resisting arrest and sentenced to time in jail.5 His conviction is not overturned on appeal or through habeas corpus.6 He subsequently files a § 1983 action against the officer who arrested him, claiming his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures was violated.7 In the underlying criminal trial, the State carried its burden in demonstrating the individual "intentionally prevent[ed] a peace officer from effecting a lawful arrest."8 If the plaintiff were to succeed on his § 1983 claim, he would have to demonstrate that his arrest was unlawful.9 This showing would "necessarily imply the invalidity of his [underlying] conviction or sentence."10 The possibility then arises that twjo udicial decisions could reach diametrically opposed results regarding the same set of operative facts if such a collaterally-attacking § 1983 claim was cognizable. If the true purpose of § 1983 is to "interpose the federal courts,"11 however, the sigfniicance in finding collaterally-attacking § 1983 claims non-cognizable is magnified when the plaintiff is ineligible for federal habeas corpus relief and has no other access to the federal courts.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not settled the issue of whether a collaterally-attacking § 1983 claim brought by a non- habeas-eligible plaintiff is cognizable.12 As a result, the circuit courts of appeals are split as to the proper course of action, with some non-habeas-eligible plaintiffs having the chance to succeed on their claims,13 while others are categorically denied that opportunity.14 This Comment will argue that, if given a full and Page 649 fair chance to litigate his claim in state court criminal proceedings,15 a non-habeas-eligible plaintiff bringing a collaterally-attacking § 1983 suit should first be required to show a "favorable termination"16 to his underlying criminal conviction. For equitable reasons, however, the favorable termination requirement should not apply when state actors withheld exculpatory evidence from the plaintiff material to his underlying conviction, and such is not discovered until after the exhaustion of available remedies in the state criminal appeals process. In this instance, a non-habeas-eligible plaintiff should be allowed to bring his collaterally-attacking § 1983 action in state or federal court to adjudicate his federal claims.

Part II of this Comment outlines the dictum opinions of the Supreme Court on this issue in Heck v. Humphrey17 and Spencer v. Kemna18 and examines the manner in which the federal circuit courts have interpreted and applied these cases. Part III discusses the rationales of the opposing views espoused by Justice Scalia, Justice Souter, and the federal circuits in light of the history and purpose of § 1983, state sovereignty interests, and lingering questions of federal habeas interaction. Part III also discusses the limitations of utilizing the favorable termination requirement in all cases of collaterally-attacking § 1983 actions brought by non- habeas-eligible plaintiffs. Part IV concludes by arguing for the adoption of a qualified favorable termination requirement to address the dilemma.

II Favorable Termination: An Overview Of History And Reach

Generally, for a plaintiff to succeed in a § 1983 action, he must demonstrate that the defendant, acting under color of state law, Page 650 violated his federal constitutional or statutory rights.19 A difficult issue arises, however, when the plaintiff is also a convicted criminal, and success in his § 1983 action would necessarily impugn the validity of his underlying criminal conviction. Members of the Supreme Court addressed such a possibility in Heck20 and Spencer.21

A Heck v. Humphrey

In Heck, the Justices grappled with the implications of a collaterally-attacking § 1983 claim.22 An Indiana state court convicted Roy Heck of voluntary manslaughter for the death of his wife and sentenced him to fifteen years in state prison.23 During the pendency of his criminal appeal and while still incarcerated, Heck filed a § 1983 action in federal district court, alleging that county prosecutors and an Indiana State Police investigator engaged in unlawful investigatory practices, knowingly destroyed exculpatory evidence, and utilized an illegal voice identification procedure at his trial.24 Heck requested compensatory and punitive monetary damages based on these claims.25 The § 1983 action was dismissed without prejudice by the district court because its success would have directly undermined the validity of his underlying criminal conviction.26 While awaiting his § 1983 appeal, Heck's criminal conviction was upheld, his first petition for a writ of federal habeas corpus was dismissed for failure to exhaust state remedies, and his second petition for a writ of federal habeas corpus was denied.27 Subsequently, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court on Heck's § 1983 suit, reasoning that success on the action would necessitate Heck's release from prison, even though no such relief was sought, and habeas corpus was the proper vehicle for such a remedy.28

Consequently, the Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether the reach of § 1983 was sufficient to overcome the Page 651 potenti alconsequences of a collateral attack. In Preiser v. Rodriguez, the Court previously surmised that Congress intended state prisoners challenging the "validity of the fact or length of their confinement" to utilize federal habeas corpus review exclusively over a § 1983 action.29 While Heck's § 1983 action challenged the validity of his conviction, he sought compensation, not release from jail.30 In Heck, the Court framed the issue as "wheth ermoney damages premised on an unlawful conviction could be pursued under § 1983."31 Since Heck was still incarcerated and thus eligible for federal habeas corpus relief,32 the Court had to decide whether his collaterally-attacking § 1983 claim was barred by the availability of an alternate federal remedy. Writing for the majority,33 Justice Scalia began his analysis by pointing out that, in general, a plaintiff need not exhaust alternate remedies to bring a § 1983 claim.34 The majority ultimately decided, however, that a correct handling of Heck's claim for relief rested not upon the availability of alternate remedies, but rather on whether such a § 1983 action was even cognizable.35 Because of strong policy interests disfavoring the expansion of collateral attacks, and concerns regarding finality and consistency in litigation,36 the Court found the action was not cognizable.37

The Court's conclusion was grounded in its recognition of a § 1983 action as a "species of tort liability,"38 being most akin to the common law tort of malicious prosecution.39 The Court highlighted the "hoary principle" that tort actions, and thus § 1983 actions, are inappropriate mechanisms for challenging criminal convictions.40 Direct appeal, habeas corpus review, and executive review are the normal avenues by which a criminal's conviction Page...

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