It’s sadly a common fact pattern: a member of the community is involved in an altercation with the police; the police use excessive force; but it’s the community member who gets charged with a criminal offense. As we’ve reported earlier here, a related criminal case presents a sticky wicket for litigants hoping to see civil justice someday. See generally Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).
Heck held that when a § 1983 claim, if successful, would render a conviction or sentence invalid, then “a § 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. . . . A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.” Id. at 486 – 87. The rationale is that “civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal judgments.” Id. at 486. Thus under Heck, a section 1983 action is barred if success in the action would “necessarily require the plaintiff to prove the unlawfulness of his conviction or confinement.” The question becomes, then, whether a § 1983 necessarily undermines the lawfulness of the original conviction.
Last summer, the en banc Ninth Circuit provided some answers to that question in Lemos v. Cnty. of Sonoma, 40 F.4th 1002, 1003 (9th Cir. 2022) (en banc). In Lemos, police allegedly used excessive force against a woman, then charged her with a resisting-arrest misdemeanor. (Public defenders in the crowd – does any of this sound familiar?) A jury convicted her of a misdemeanor resisting charge only. She brought a civil-rights suit afterwards, which (because of the misdo conviction) the trial court dismissed under Heck. The en banc court reversed. Because Lemos’s § 1983 claim was based on one particular action by police, and because her criminal conviction (based on the jury instructions and evidence at trial) could be sustained on other acts that did not necessarily conflict with her claims, Lemos’s case was not Heck-barred. Id. at 1007.
But what about a no-contest plea that is held in abeyance and later dismissed, like with a deferred-prosecution agreement? Heck barred? Again, heck no.
In Duarte v. City of Stockton, 60 F.4th 566, 571 (9th Cir. 2023), the Ninth Circuit reiterated that “the Heck bar . . . requires an actual judgment of conviction, not its functional equivalent.” “Because the charges against Duarte were dismissed, he was never convicted” the Court reasoned. Id. “And because there is no conviction that Duarte’s § 1983 claims would impugn,” it continued, “Heck is inapplicable.” Id. See also Martin v. City of Boise, 920 F.3d 584, 613 (9th Cir. 2019) (“Where there is no ‘conviction or sentence’ that may be undermined by a grant of relief to the plaintiffs, the Heck doctrine has no application.”).
The upshot is that in California, for example, Penal Code § 1000 diversion does not result in a conviction cognizable under Heck. And as long as a dismissal results, deferred or even withdrawn guilty pleas should not pose any barrier to a subsequent civil suit.