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Ninth Circuit: Heck Favorable Termination Rule Applies to Civil Commitments

By John E. Dannenberg

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that the "favorable termination rule" of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) [which requires that before a prisoner can bring a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights damages action challenging a wrongful state conviction, he must first have overturned that conviction on direct appeal or by habeas corpus petition] applies with equal force to challenges to allegedly wrongful civil commitments under California's Sexually Violent Predators Act (SVPA).

Michael Huftile filed a § 1983 complaint against Dr. L.C. Miccio-Fonseca, a psychiatrist at the California Men's Colony state prison, alleging that Dr. Miccio-Fonseca's "policies, practices and customs" when evaluating Huftile for SVPA commitment violated Huftile's constitutional rights to due process, privacy and equal protection. Following Dr. Miccio-Fonseca's recommendation, Huftile was civilly committed for two years following the requisite jury trial per the SVPA [Welfare and Institutions Code § 6600, et seq.].

In the prerequisite interview process, Huftile refused to be interviewed by Dr. Miccio-Fonseca. Although she (Dr. Miccio-Fonseca) alleged to be under court order to interview him, she could not produce a copy of the order. Neither did she tape record the interview as required by the order.

She then testified against Huftile at the SVPA commitment trial, wherein the state prevailed. Huftile alleged in his § 1983 complaint that his trial was flawed with due process violations resulting from involuntary revelation of confidential information from his files and from fabricated portions of the doctor's report.

In the U.S. District Court (E.D. Cal.), the court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, concluding that Heck barred Huftile from gaining relief because succeeding in a § 1983 action would necessarily imply the invalidity of his civil commitment.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed that Huftile's question was one of first impression, but ultimately concluded that for purposes of Heck there was no distinction between an underlying criminal or civil commitment. The court was guided by the Supreme Court in Heck, at p.486, wherein it noted "the hoary principle that civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of an outstanding criminal judgment." Huftile attempted to distinguish his situation as an outstanding civil judgment, and argued that he was not a "prisoner" as defined in Page v. Torrey, 201 F.3d 1136 (9th Cir. 2000) [a prisoner is one detained as the result of a criminal offense].

But the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), by its own terms, applies to a "person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court." The Ninth Circuit went on to note that it was well established that § 2254 could be used by an SVPA detainee to challenge his confinement, citing Duncan v. Walker, 533 U.S. 167, 176 (2001).
Therefore, to avoid the use of § 1983 to supplant favorable termination via appeal or habeas corpus below, it followed that Heck must apply as well to SVPA commitments.

Huftile nonetheless argued that even if Heck applied to SVPA detainees in general, it did not apply to him because he challenged only the procedures used against him, relief from which would not "necessarily imply the invalidity" of his civil commitment.

The Ninth Circuit relied upon Butterfield v. Bail, 120 F.3d 1023 (9th Cir. 1997) to deny Huftile relief. It noted that if Dr. Miccio-Fonseca's testimony was ruled defective, Huftile would then have had only one psychological reviewer recommending SVPA commitment, whereas the SVPA statute requires two to take the case to the next step of a civil commitment trial. Thus, disqualifying her testimony would necessarily invalidate the underlying commitment in violation of Heck. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit held that Huftile was Heck-barred from gaining damages.

However, Huftile had also sought injunctive relief to "prevent the defendant from inflicting further injury" upon him. Relying upon Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997), the court ruled that Huftile was not barred from seeking injunctive relief. Without deciding if Huftile had any such relief coming, the appellate court remanded that narrow question to the district court to determine. But the Ninth Circuit did decide that Huftile had continuing standing to proceed in habeas corpus against the original commitment, notwithstanding that he was already scheduled for a second recommitment trial in August 2005. Any recommitment would not render his complaints against the first commitment moot, because a second commitment would necessarily rest upon the validity of the first. See: Huftile v. Miccio-Fonseca, 410 F.3d 1136 (9th Cir. 2005), cert. denied, 126 S.Ct. 2325 (2006).

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Related legal case

Huftile v. Miccio-Fonseca