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Heck Satisfied if Ruling Fails to Address Issues but Reverses Conviction

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held an order vacating a sentence imposed by a lower court constitutes a favorable termination of proceedings under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) [PLN, Sept. 1994, p.12], despite the fact that the order failed to expressly address the specific legal challenges to the sentence.

At issue was a Pennsylvania federal district court’s order dismissing a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action brought by Raymond Bronowicz against Allegheny County officials in the county’s Probation Office, as well as Judge Donald E. Machen.

Bronowicz was charged on July 5, 2000 with ten counts that ranged from terroristic threats to DUI. He entered a plea and was sentenced on four counts on June 6, 2001. He had fully served his sentence on three counts at sentencing, had two counts withdrawn per the plea, and was sentenced on four counts to prison and probation terms.

Between sentencing and up to November 2010, Bronowicz faced three separate arrests for violation of probation, resulting in further sanctions. At a January 2011 hearing on one of the violations, neither Bronowicz nor his attorney were in the courtroom when Judge Machen was presented with a purported plea agreement of 18 to 36 months by probation officer Karen Ollis. Machen entered judgment based on that “agreement.” There was no transcript of the proceeding.

Bronowicz appealed his sentence, claiming it was illegal. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania filed an answer admitting the allegations and the Superior Court vacated the sentence.

On remand, Bronowicz was ordered to be “paroled forthwith.” After he filed his civil rights action, the defendants moved for dismissal, claiming it was barred by Heck v. Humphrey. The district court granted the motion and an appeal followed.

Under Heck, to recover damages for an allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, a 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 determinations or called into question by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.

The defendants claimed the Superior Court’s order did not satisfy the requirements of Heck because it declined to address Bronowicz’s challenges to the legality of the sentence and proceedings. The Third Circuit, however, found the Superior Court may only disturb a sentence by a lower court following a probation violation if the revocation proceedings themselves or the judgment of sentence was illegal.

The appellate court said its Heck analysis was not an overly mechanical one that requires “certain magic words.” Rather, it considers the totality of circumstances surrounding the prior proceedings to ensure the § 1983 proceeding will not lead to “two conflicting resolutions arising from the same transaction.” The Court of Appeals found that success on Bronowicz’s claims attacking the legality of his January 2011 revocation hearing would be fully consistent with the Superior Court’s order.

Accordingly, the district court’s ruling as to the January 2011 hearing was reversed, but affirmed as to all other claims. See: Bronowicz v. Allegheny Cnty., 804 F.3d 338 (3d Cir. 2015).

Following remand, the case settled in February 2016 for $97,500, inclusive of attorney fees. Bronowicz was represented by attorney Robert M. Owsiany. 

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Related legal case

Bronowicz v. Allegheny Cnty.