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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Louisiana Prisoner’s Suit Dismissed on Heck Grounds, Holds Related Disciplinary Convictions Don’t Absolutely Bar Excessive Force Claims

by Matt Clarke

On November 17, 2021, the same day it explained that a Louisiana prisoner’s civil rights claims are not necessarily barred by related prison disciplinary convictions under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit applied that reasoning to reverse a district’s court dismissal of another Louisiana prisoner’s suit filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The Court’s earlier decision noted that Heck bars only claims that might affect the duration of a prisoner’s sentence. [See: PLN, June 2022, p.12.] In the instant case, the Court also held that prison disciplinary reports were not inadmissible hearsay because they were not admitted into evidence to prove that the prisoner actually committed the offenses.

The prisoner, Darvin Castro Santos, was held at the state’s Elayn Hunt Correctional Center on January 28, 2016, when he allegedly witnessed a group of six guards beating another prisoner and implored them to stop. The six then turned on him, he said, knocked him to the floor and then hit, kicked, choked, handcuffed and dragged him so that his head hit poles in the walkway.

He was taken to a shower, where guard Cpt. John Wells—who was also accused of excessive force in the Gray case—sprayed Santos with a chemical agent, ordered him to strip naked, and allegedly used the same agent to spray his anus and genitals. The prisoner claimed he was prohibited from washing off the chemicals, placed in a jumpsuit and escorted to another area, where Wells allegedly cut him with a knife and threatened to kill him.

However, a prison disciplinary board came to a different conclusion about events, finding that Santos approached the guards in a threatening manner and then attacked them. They managed to restrain him, but they said he remained noncompliant and combative, at one point striking Wells and breaking his dentures, justifying the use of a chemical agent to gain compliance.

The board found Santos guilty of disciplinary violations for “defiance,” “aggravated disobedience,” “property destruction,” and “[being in an] unauthorized area.” He was sentenced to 20 days in solitary confinement and forfeited 180 days of “good time.” He also lost canteen privileges for 18 weeks and had 30 weeks of phone restrictions.

Aided by Baton Rouge attorney Donna Unkel Grodner of Grodner and Associates, APLC, Santos filed suit in federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana, accusing Wells and the other guards of using excessive force in violation of his Eighth Amendment guarantee to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. But because his disciplinary punishment was based on a different version of events and included the loss of good-time credits, the district court ruled that his excessive-force claims were barred by Heck and dismissed the suit.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that Heck bars a prisoner from seeking relief if a favorable judgment would (1) necessarily invalidate a prior conviction and (2) affect the duration of his sentence. Here, however, the Court noted that not all of Santos’ disciplinary violations resulted in the loss of good time credits. Moreover, the record was insufficient to determine which factual findings by the disciplinary board were used to justify each violation. So the Court said that “[i]t is thus impossible to determine which facts were necessary to support the board’s conclusion.”

To act as a bar under Heck, the Court continued, “[i]t is not sufficient to deem Santos’s claims to be ‘intertwined’ with his loss of good-time credits” since a court may bar “only those claims that are ‘necessarily at odds with’ the disciplinary rulings, and only those rulings that resulted in the loss of good time credits,” citing for the first factor Bush v. Strain, 513 F.3d 492 (5th Cir. 2008), and for the second factor both Muhammad v. Close, 540 U.S. 749, 124 S. Ct. 1303 (2004) and Aucoin v. Cupil, 958 F.3d 379 (5th Cir. 2020).

Importantly, the Court noted, the disciplinary rulings were admissible evidence and not hearsay. But they proved only that Santos had been convicted rather than proving the validity of his conviction, since the Heck bar “does not, in theory, assume that the prison disciplinary board’s determinations were true, but only that they cannot be challenged through § 1983.”

In partial dissent, Judge Don R. Willett said this was wrong, and the rulings were “extra-court” so therefore hearsay. But no harm, no foul, he continued, since they could have been admitted in evidence under one of several theories later on.

More troubling to the judge was the majority’s conclusion that it needed to sift through the rulings to determine which affected Santos’ good-time loss. Not true, he said, since most of Santos’ suit “‘challenges the factual determination that underlies his conviction[s],’” also citing Muhammad.

“But most does not mean all,” the Judge allowed, noting that Santos’ claims after he got in the shower—where Wells allegedly ordered him to “spread his butt cheeks” and pepper-sprayed him “in the anus,” then “threatened and cut him with a knife after he was ‘no longer resisting or attempting to flee or, otherwise, commit[ting] any crime’”—were not “trivial details.”

No evidence justified that use of force if true, Judge Willett agreed, so Santos “has the right to present his case … to a jury, and the district court’s belief otherwise was error.” Therefore, the district court’s judgment was vacated and the case remanded. See: Santos v. White, 18 F.4th 472 (5th Cir. 2021).

The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will report further developments. See: Santos v. White, USDC (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:16-cv-00598. 

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Related legal case

Santos v. White