Monday, April 22, 2013

Section 1983 suit proceeds despite criminal conviction

If you were convicted of a crime in state court, can you bring a lawsuit under Section 1983 for civil rights violations in connection with your conviction? That issue brought about a slugfest in the Second Circuit last week.

The case is Poventud v. City of New York, decided on April 19. Poventud was initially convicted of attempted murder, assault and criminal possession of a weapon in connection with the death of a Bronx cabdriver. As a result of various Brady violations that tainted the state prosecution (in part due to a bad photo lineup), Poventud's conviction was vacated. He then plead guilty to a lesser charge and got time-served. As a free man no longer in custody, he then brought a Section 1983 case challenging the improprieties that led to the attempted murder conviction.

The Supreme Court decided in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), that a Section 1983 lawsuit must be dismissed if its success would necessarily undercut the legitimacy of the plaintiff's criminal conviction, unless that conviction was reversed on appeal or called into question by a federal habeas corpus ruling. The idea is that you cannot relitigate in federal court matters that were decided against you in a state criminal proceeding. Citing Heck, the district court dismissed Poventud's Section 1983 claim because his guilty plea was to conduct that "necessarily required his presence at the scene of the crime" and a successful civil rights lawsuit would "logically imply the invalidity" of his guilty plea. Over a strong dissent from Chief Judge Jacobs, the Second Circuit (Calabresi and Sack) reverses and reinstates the case, reaffirming the Court's view that Heck's prohibition against Section 1983 suits in connection with a state court conviction only applies when the plaintiff is in custody at the time of the lawsuit and is able to bring a federal habeas corpus petition that could attack the conviction directly. Since Poventud had no habeas remedy in that he was a free man when he brought this lawsuit, the case is reinstated because it's the only opportunity for him now to challenge the constitutionality of his conviction.

The Second Circuit thinks this is an easy case in light of the Court of Appeals' longstanding interpretation of Heck, and Judge Calabresi says the majority was contemplating issuing a summary order rather than a published, precedential decision. It did not do so because it wanted to address Chief Judge Jacob's "apocalyptic" dissenting opinion. It takes Judge Calabresi more than six pages to respond to Judge Jacob's arguments. As the majority and dissenting opinions fight over the meaning of Supreme Court decisions and the Second Circuit's interpretation of those decisions, this case is a good candidate for the rare en banc ruling.

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