What the Heck?
In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the seminal case of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). In his case, Roy Heck claimed, after his conviction for voluntary manslaughter, that prosecutors and the police investigator had conducted an, “unlawful, unreasonable, and arbitrary” investigation.
Heck filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983. The Federal District Court dismissed the action, finding that a favorable ruling for Heck on his allegations would, “directly implicate the legality” of his underlying conviction.
At the same time, Heck was pursuing an appeal of his criminal conviction, which he subsequently lost. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his lawsuit, reasoning that if a plaintiff is challenging the legality of his conviction, he must first exhaust his state remedies (by appeal).
Heck appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court looked to two separate sources for prisoner litigation, 42 U.S.C. §1983 (the civil rights act) and 28 U.S.C. §2254 (the habeas corpus statute). Both of these laws provide a method under federal law when there is a claim of “unconstitutional treatment” by law enforcement or prosecutors (state officials), but cases brought under 42 U.S.C. §1983 do not require that state remedies, such as appeals, be exhausted prior to bringing a civil action. However, the Court agreed, that may not be true “when establishing the basis for the damages claim necessarily demonstrates the invalidity of the conviction.”
The Court found the closest type of action to what Heck claimed to be malicious prosecution and with that type of claim, “one element that must be alleged and proved … is termination of the prior criminal proceeding in favor of the accused.” As such, the Court ruled that in order to move forward in a §1983 case, Heck, “must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question” by a habeas corpus petition.
Although the Heck case was very short for a U.S. Supreme Court decision, it has far-reaching implications for law enforcement officers. In many arrests, allegations of misconduct are made after the fact, and after the individual has either been convicted, taken a plea deal or been dismissed with a stipulation of probable cause.
In Donovan v. Thames, 105 F.3d 291 (6th Cir. 2013), officers arrived at Terry Donovan’s home in response to a domestic call. Donavan was ultimately convicted of resisting arrest. While the criminal charges were pending, Donovan filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging excessive force and unlawful entry. With respect to the force claim, the Court agreed that the, “offense of resisting arrest does not require a finding that the police officers did not use excessive force in effecting the arrest,” and that as such, his lawsuit could move forward on that issue.
In Mason v. Louisville Police Department, 8 Fed. Appx. 326 (6th Cir. 2001), Jason Mason pled guilty to numerous charges of assault and related offenses. During an altercation, police broke his arm and Mason claimed excessive force. The Court agreed that since he admitted all of his actions during the plea proceedings, he was prevented from arguing otherwise. He also could not argue that the police were somehow not justified in making a forcible arrest.
Lower courts, both federal and state appellate cases, have fleshed out the Heck Doctrine. In Dunn v. Felty, 226 S.W.3d 68 (Ky. 2007), Tracey Dunn argued that he had been falsely arrested and imprisoned. Although the lawsuit was filed more than a year after the initial arrest, it was filed within a year of the resolution of the underlying charges (harassment, menacing and resisting arrest). The officer-defendant, Todd Felty, argued that the statute of limitations began at the moment of the arrest, which would have made the subsequent lawsuit time-barred. The Court agreed that was the case, since a favorable termination of the underlying charges is not an element of false imprisonment/arrest.
However, Dunn also brought a claim under malicious prosecution, arguing that does require a favorable ending to the underlying criminal case, and for that claim, the statute of limitations began on the date of the dismissal. He relied on Shamaeizadeh v. Cunigan, 182 F.3d 391 (6th Cir. 1999) which suggested that any action “which would impugn an anticipated future conviction” cannot be brought until that conviction occurs and is set aside. The Court agreed that Heck does not end an action in the pre-conviction setting because, it is possible that an anticipated future conviction may never occur due to acquittal or dismissal or a refusal to prosecute. Instead, it remains in the power of the trial court to stay a civil action until the criminal case is completed – and if a conviction occurs which would impugn the civil case, it could be dismissed under Heck.
An example of a case in which Heck was found not to bar a lawsuit is Karttunen v. Clark, 369 Fed. Appx. 705 (6th Cir. 2010). Jeffrey Karttunen was arrested after a struggle, but also argued that the arresting officers used excessive force against him. He pled no contest to a charge of resisting arrest. The Court agreed that based upon the facts, little to no force was justified in the arrest and that a finding in Karttunen’s favor on the force claim did not invalidate his plea of guilty in the resisting arrest. Simply because there is a connection between the two, the crime and the claim, excessive force could have occurred within the context of a lawful arrest.
There are a number of Heck cases decided every year in the United States. For officers, the significance of Heck revolves around ensuring that in a civil case against them, the facts of the underlying case is understood. In fact, the defense in a Heck case starts with the prosecution of the underlying case, with care taken to ensure that a charge connected to a future claim, such as third-degree assault for an excessive force claim, isn’t dismissed without a stipulation of probable cause. This can serve to a great extent as protection in a claim of excessive force or unlawful arrest.
What the defendant says during a plea conversation also is valuable evidence in such claims as well. For officers, it is critical to be aware of how decisions and agreements made in the criminal forum may be useful, or potentially damaging, in any subsequent civil actions, and to ensure that valuable admissions, for example, be formally captured in the criminal proceedings.