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Seventh Circuit: Heck Bars Civil Rights Challenges to Civil Commitment

by Matthew T. Clarke


On December 20, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that an Illinois prisoner’s challenge to civil commitment as a sexually violent person after release cannot be raised under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, unless the underlying civil commitment is first terminated in his favor or shown to be invalid “through another outlet.” The ruling extended application of the principal laid out in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), that a civil rights challenge to prison disciplinary action is barred whenever a favorable ruling for the prisoner would necessarily imply that it was invalid.

After serving his eight-year Illinois state sentence for sexual assault, Timothy Bell was civilly committed under the state’s Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act (SVPCA), 725 ILCS §§ 207/1 - 207/99. Pursuant to that law, he remained incarcerated in an Illinois prison for another 16 years.

Bell filed a pro se federal civil rights action against state Attorney General Kwame Raouo (D) and the assistant attorney general who conducted his commitment proceedings. Proceeding pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he challenged his continued incarceration for exceeding an alleged 15-year statutory cap. But during screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(b), the district court concluded that Heck barred the claim. Bell appealed.

The Seventh Circuit began by noting that Bell had been released from detention to home confinement during the pendency of his appeal. But it held that the change in Bell’s status did not affect his suit, since he “remains in the state’s SVPCA program despite being recently released to home confinement,” which the Court called “a form of state custody” per 725 ILCS 207/40(b)(4).

Agreeing then with the district court, the Seventh Circuit held that Heck applied, barring Bell’s claim. The Court noted that every other circuit to address the issue had ruled similarly, pointing to Huftile v. Micco-Fonseca, 410 F.3d 1136 (9th Cir. 2005); Thomas v. Eschen, 928 F.3d 711 (8th Cir. 2019); Banda v. N.J., 134 F. App’x 529 (3d Cir. 2005); Whitehead v. Bush, 62 F. App’x 912 (10th Cir. 2003); and Fetzer v. Secr’y, Fla. Dep’t of Children and Families, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 25758 (11th Cir.).

The Court said that Bell had several administrative options to challenge his continued commitment, or he could appeal the decision of a periodic review board to continue his commitment all the way to the state supreme court; should he exhaust his state appeals, he could file a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S. § 2254(b)(1)(A) and possibly a state law habeas petition as well. However, the Court noted that “Bell has taken advantage of these state-law avenues for relief several times, but each time has failed to appeal adverse rulings.” So the Court reminded him that he must exhaust state remedies before pursuing federal habeas relief. The Court then affirmed the district court’s judgment, also denying Bell’s motion for appointed counsel. See: Bell v. Raoul, 88 F.4th 1231 (7th Cir. 2023).

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Related legal case

Bell v. Raoul