On June 27, 2014, the Seventh Circuit found that two Fourth Amendment excessive force claims were compatible with Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), reversing the court below on this issue. In Green v. Chvala, No. 13-3568, 2014 WL 2925182 (7th Cir. June 30, 2014), the plaintiff sued two law enforcement departments and several of their officers for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court concluded that the plaintiff’s principal claims against two officers using force were barred by Heck, relying on the plaintiff’s conviction for recklessly endangering safety, which stemmed from the same course of events underlying his civil suit. But finding these claims to be compatible with Heck, the Seventh Circuit vacated the lower decision in part and remanded.
Under Heck, to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a Section 1983 plaintiff 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 federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. Heck states that an example of a Section 1983 action that does not seek damages directly attributable to conviction or confinement but whose successful prosecution would necessarily imply that the plaintiff’s criminal conviction was wrongful would be the following: A state defendant is convicted of and sentenced for the crime of resisting arrest, defined as intentionally preventing a peace officer from effecting a lawful arrest. He then brings a Section 1983 action against the arresting officer, seeking damages for violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. To prevail in this Section 1983 action, he would have to negate an element of the offense of which he has been convicted. Regardless of the state law concerning res judicata, the Section 1983 action will not lie.
Because Heck can be an important Section 1983 defense, it is important to be aware of the Seventh Circuit’s limitation of Heck as a claims bar in Chvala.
In Chvala, the facts assumed true on appeal were that the plaintiff was pulling away from a stop sign when a defendant officer approached in a squad car and activated its lights. The plaintiff pulled into a nearby lot, promptly backed out of it, and slowly drove past the squad car. The officer responded by opening fire on the plaintiff’s car, and bullets shattered the passenger and back windows. Fearing for his life, the plaintiff then sped away. Later that day, two officers apprehended the plaintiff, now on foot, at gunpoint. While the plaintiff was lying motionless and handcuffed on the ground, a defendant officer came over and kneed him in the ribs as the other officers watched. Several months later the plaintiff pleaded no contest and was convicted of a Wisconsin statute for “second degree recklessly endangering safety” for conduct committed on the date of his arrest.
The plaintiff sued based upon the shooting, the kneeing, other officers’ failure to stop the kneeing, and departmental failure to train on proper force. At screening the district court dismissed each of the plaintiff’s claims for failing to state a claim for relief under Section 1983. First, the district court concluded that the plaintiff’s excessive-force claim against the shooting officer was barred by Heck because the plaintiff’s allegation that he posed no immediate safety threat (thus making the use of deadly force unreasonable) could not be reconciled with the plaintiff’s conviction for recklessly endangering others. Concerning the plaintiff’s claim against the kneeing officer, and against the other officers for not stopping the kneeing, the district court concluded that the force was justified. It reasoned that the officers could anticipate further resistance from the plaintiff given his recent flight, which Heck prevented the plaintiff from denying. Lastly, the district court concluded that the plaintiff’s claims against two law enforcement departments must be dismissed because neither had the legal capacity to be sued.
On appeal, the plaintiff first argued that his excessive-force claim against the shooting officer was compatible with his conviction for two reasons. First: the shooting officer shot at his car before he sped off in a manner that, according to the conviction, was reckless. Second: because he pleaded no contest under North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970), he did not admit to reckless driving.
The Seventh Circuit observed that the plaintiff’s Alford plea did not nullify the Heck bar or its application to reckless driving. Like any plea, an Alford plea resulted in a conviction to which Heck applies. Moreover, under Heck, the plaintiff could not pursue any claim that would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction. The plaintiff was convicted of recklessly endangering others by speeding away from the officer, and an officer may reasonably use deadly force when a suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others. Thus, Heck would bar any allegation that the shooting officer used excessive force after the plaintiff began driving recklessly under the state statute of his conviction.
But the Seventh Circuit found that Heck did not bar the plaintiff’s claim against the shooting officer because, construing his allegations liberally, he was alleging that the shooting officer used deadly force before the reckless driving that led to his conviction. The plaintiff alleged that the shooting officer fired at him as he slowly drove past the shooting officer, before he sped away. The Seventh Circuit ruled that Heck does not bar that claim because, if it did, then resistance that did not jeopardize safety, such as the low-speed driving that the plaintiff described, would invite the police to inflict any reaction or retribution they choose. The Seventh Circuit cautioned, though, that the plaintiff survived Heck only if, as his complaint implied, the conviction was for conduct that occurred after the shooting.
In any case, the Seventh Circuit found there had been no seizure under the Fourth Amendment because if, as the plaintiff contended, he sped away after the officer fired the second shot, then he was not seized by that force because he was not stopped by the very instrumentality set in motion or put in place to achieve that result. However, because the plaintiff alleged that the officer shot at his slowly moving car, not to enforce a government interest, but to kill him, the Seventh Circuit found that the allegations stated a Fourteenth Amendment claim.
Regarding the plaintiff’s claim against the kneeing officer, the Seventh Circuit found that the plaintiff stated a claim for relief against the kneeing officer because he had alleged that the kneeing officer applied significant force after he was unable to resist arrest.
As to the other defendants, the Seventh Circuit found that the officers who watched the plaintiff get kneed in the ribs were not liable because the plaintiff asserted that he was kneed just once, so there was no chance for other officers to step in and no need to warn the kneeing officer to stop. And the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower decision that the named law enforcement departments could not be sued under Section 1983 because they were departments of government units.