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Seventeen Years Pending Re-trial Fails to State Speedy Trial Violation under § 1983

Seventeen Years Pending Re-trial Fails to State Speedy Trial Violation under § 1983

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a pretrial detainee did not suffer a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial despite being imprisoned for 17 years after a state appellate court reversed his conviction and remanded the case to the trial court.

In 1988, Buxton Craig Heyerman was found guilty in Calhoun County, Michigan of one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison, but the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed his conviction on June 8, 1989. Heyerman was advised of the ruling by his appellate counsel, and the trial court and prosecutor were informed by the appellate court the day the opinion was released.

However, nothing further occurred with Heyerman's case until he filed a habeas petition in 2007. Court and prosecutorial officials had no idea the case had slipped through the cracks of the judicial system. In the wake of his petition, Heyerman was appointed counsel and his attorney moved to dismiss the charge on speedy trial grounds. Following a series of hearings, the trial court entered an order on May 11, 2007 that found Heyerman's speedy trial rights had been violated, and the criminal charge was dismissed with prejudice.

With the assistance of counsel, Heyerman filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action on May 9, 2009, naming several defendants. Only Calhoun County and Susan Mladenoff, the county's prosecuting attorney from January 2001 through 2008, remained as defendants at the summary judgment stage, and the district court granted summary judgment in their favor. Heyerman appealed.

While the Sixth Circuit said it was not relevant to the disposition of Heyerman's § 1983 action, the appellate court described, for the interest of readers, why neither Heyerman nor his criminal defense attorney had brought his case to the attention of the trial court or prosecutor's office during the 17-year period after his conviction was reversed. Heyerman's attorney, in hearings before the trial judge, testified that he advised Heyerman "to stay put and quiet like a mouse" until the statute of limitations had expired, as both thought that Heyerman likely would be convicted at a re-trial.

Heyerman initially agreed to this plan, but then pushed his counsel to bring his case to the trial court's attention when his attorney "started ... hemming and hawing about the more time [served] the better." Heyerman eventually got fed up and quit speaking to his lawyer, "who to his discredit, apparently abandoned his client."

That strategy did not work out very well. Heyerman's counsel had incorrectly determined the statute of limitations was ten years but then took no action after a decade had passed. Such inaction proved to be costly. A disciplinary board suspended Heyerman's attorney from the practice of law for 33 months and Heyerman won a $95,000 settlement in a legal malpractice claim.

As to Heyerman's § 1983 suit, the Sixth Circuit found that summary judgment had been properly granted to the defendants. There was no showing that the county had a custom, policy or practice – as required to hold the county liable – that resulted in Heyerman's lengthy stay in prison after his conviction was reversed.

Additionally, the claim against Mladenoff essentially amounted to municipal liability or respondeat superior liability; the former failed due to the lack of a county policy, custom or practice, while the latter failed as a matter of law because respondeat superior does not apply in § 1983 cases.

"Undoubtedly, the judicial system – to say nothing of the criminal defense system – has not functioned as it should when a criminal defendant remains imprisoned for seventeen years after his or her conviction has been reversed and no further action has been taken," the Court of Appeals wrote. "Section 1983 liability, however, does not necessarily attach to any entity and/or individual as a result of this breakdown."

Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote a concurring opinion in which he explained a speedy trial violation under the Sixth Amendment could not be proven in this case, as such a claim requires a showing of "state lethargy and a state trial." No subsequent re-trial had ensued after Heyerman's conviction was reversed. Judge Sutton said the facts might support a claim for unreasonable detention under the Fourth Amendment or a violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, but such claims were not before the court.

He also noted, "It is not often that an inmate seeks refuge from the prosecutorial arm of the State by laying low for seventeen years in prison in order to avoid the risk of a new trial that, if all goes badly, will lead to: incarceration. And it is not often that a State abets this strategy by failing to realize that it is housing an individual whose conviction has been reversed. One suspects that Heyerman and his attorney will not try this again, and one hopes that Michigan will not let this happen again."

The district court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants was affirmed. See: Heyerman v. County of Calhoun, 680 F.3d 642 (6th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Heyerman v. County of Calhoun