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Sixth Circuit Outlines Exceptions to Heck Favorable-Termination Doctrine

Sixth Circuit Outlines Exceptions to Heck Favorable-Termination Doctrine

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held the favorable-termination doctrine does not apply to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 actions brought by prisoners who were foreclosed from challenging their incarceration in a habeas action or who are only challenging the procedures that led to the incarceration and not the underlying conviction or duration of sentence.

The Court’s ruling comes in an appeal brought by Ohio’s Hamilton County Public Defenders (HCPD) office, which was sued by Michael Powers. An Ohio federal district court granted Powers’ motion for summary judgment in his class action lawsuit that contended the HCPD had a custom or policy of failing to seek indigency hearings on behalf of criminal defendants facing jail time for unpaid fines.

Powers was ordered to pay a $250 fine in lieu of a 30-day suspended jail sentence for a misdemeanor traffic offense. Two months later he was arrested for failing to pay the fine. After he pled guilty to the violation the jail sentence was imposed, causing him to spend at least one day in jail.

The HCPD argued that Powers’ § 1983 complaint was barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), which held that a § 1983 damages action in connection with an allegedly unlawful conviction or sentence cannot be maintained unless the conviction or sentence has been invalidated. The Sixth Circuit, however, noted that there are two exceptions to Heck.

In a concurring opinion in Heck, Justice Souter had expressed the view that the favorable-termination requirement did not preclude § 1983 lawsuits by persons who could not have their convictions or sentences overturned through habeas review. Because petitioners may obtain habeas relief only if they are “in custody,” persons “who were merely fined, for example, or who have completed short terms of imprisonment, probation, parole, or who discover (through no fault of their own) a constitutional violation after full expiration of their sentences” are prohibited from bringing a habeas action to challenge their conviction and sentence.

This exception was further affirmed in the concurring and dissenting opinions in Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1 (1998). The Sixth Circuit acknowledged a conflict between the circuits in regard to this exception to Heck, but found the courts that rejected it “have mistaken the ordinary rule refinement that appellate courts necessarily engage in for an improper departure from binding Supreme Court precedent.”

The Sixth Circuit found that Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997) approved an analytical framework that would remove procedure-based challenges from Heck’s scope.
Courts, however, must scrutinize “the nature of the challenge to the proceedings,” because even challenges to procedures “could be such as necessarily to imply the invalidity of the judgment.” Here, “if Powers succeeds in his § 1983 suit, that means only that the failure to grant Powers an indigency hearing was wrongful, not that the order committing him to jail was wrongful.”

The Court found that HCPD’s “alleged practice of not requesting indigency hearings has no bearing on Power’s guilt or innocence in failing to pay his court-ordered fine.” For the above reasons, the Sixth Circuit held that Powers need not comply with the favorable-termination requirement set forth in Heck.

Turning to the merits, the Court found Powers had asserted the deprivation of a federal right. States may not “impose a fine as a sentence and then automatically convert it to a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full.” Because the HCPD had failed to move for an indigency hearing, the appellate court found that HCPD “was both the cause in fact and the proximate cause of the denial of Power’s right to an indigency hearing prior to his incarceration for the unpaid fine.”

The Court of Appeals, however, found there existed a genuine issue of material fact as to whether there was a policy or custom of not seeking indigency hearings. For that reason, the grant of summary judgment was improper. Accordingly, the district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. See: Powers v. Hamilton County Public Defender Commission, 501 F.3d 592 (6th Cir. 2007), petition for cert. filed.

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Related legal case

Powers v. Hamilton County Public Defender Commission