Friday, October 31, 2014

To Heck with a habeas petition, I'm suing under Section 1983!

Section 1983 is the federal civil rights statute that allows you to recover damages for the violation of your civil rights. In this case, a guy was convicted in state court and then filed suit in federal court, claiming his rights were violated at trial. He did this instead of filing a habeas corpus petition, which convicts normally pursue in upsetting unconstitutional state court convictions. This tactic does not fly.

The case is Teichman v. State of New York, decided on October 20. In challenging his criminal conviction through a civil rights action, the plaintiff cannot state a claim. Section 1983 offers plaintiffs all sorts of damages, including punitives, injunctive relief, pain and suffering and attorneys fees. But it does not recognize a claim of innocence, which is essentially what plaintiff is trying to do. The Court of Appeals has held in the past that "where a plaintiff seeks simply a declaration that there was a past injury, but claims no damages or injunction against future behavior, there is no Section 1983 claim because there is no case or controversy." Under this principle, the Second Circuit (Lynch, Calabresi and Livingston) rejects the case.

For Section 1983 junkies, this case is notable for two concurring opinions, by Judges Livingston and Calabresi, who ruminate on how the Supreme Court's ruling in Heck v. Humphrey (1994) might be implicated in cases like this. Heck stands for the proposition that you cannot bring a civil action that, if successful, would necessarily imply the invalidate of a state court criminal conviction. Heck is a complicated case, and the Court of Appeals resolves the case without delving into that precedent. But the two concurring opinions offer a different take on Heck.

What prompts the concurring opinions is that plaintiff is not in custody and therefore cannot file a habeas petition. Can people like plaintiff therefore get around Heck? Judge Livingston says No. She writes, "we have never said that a plaintiff's access to Section 1983 turns on whether he has intentionally caused habeas to be unavailable. ... Those courts recognizing a narrow exception in situations where habeas was never an option have sought to afford access to a federal forum for the adjudication of constitutional claims while, at the same time, preventing those duly convicted of crimes in state proceedings ... from mounting attacks on their extant state convictions in disregard of the habeas statute's requirements."

Judge Calabresi sees things differently, writing that "the law in this Circuit ... holds, whether correctly or not, that Heck does not bar Section 1983 claims when habeas is unavailable, at least so long as the unavailability was not intentionally caused by the plaintiff."


Michael Chermside said...

I think there is something wrong with your link to the case; all I get is an error page.

Second Circuit Civil Rights Blog said...