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Media Alerts - Griffin v. Baltimore City Police Deparment -- Fourth Circuit
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December 3, 2015
  Griffin v. Baltimore City Police Deparment -- Fourth Circuit
When Process Matters: Former State-Prison Inmate's Civil Action for Damages Barred by Court Precedent and Federalism Concerns

Areas of Law: Civil Procedure, Habeas Corpus, Enforcement Act of 1871

Issue Presented: Whether a civil action for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on an alleged violation of a constitutional right may lie when the plaintiff is no longer in custody and the underlying state conviction has not been invalidated through either a state remedy or federal habeas corpus.

Brief Summary: In a published opinion with a separate concurrence, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that a civil lawsuit filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (hereinafter section 1983) is barred when the plaintiff's allegedly unconstitutional conviction or incarceration has not been invalidated through either state or federal review.

Extended Summary: On March 8, 1982, in Baltimore City Circuit Court, Wendell Griffin was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murder and a related weapons charge. During the first twenty-eight years of his incarceration, Griffin made several attempts to appeal his conviction and challenge his incarceration, including a petition for federal habeas relief. None were successful.

In 2010, almost 30 years later, Griffin filed a pro se petition seeking post-conviction DNA testing of certain evidence, authorized by state law. In response, the circuit court appointed Griffin counsel. With assistance from counsel, Griffin uncovered potentially exculpatory evidence. At an initial evidentiary hearing, the circuit court found that the state's search for evidence related to Griffin's case was reasonable and the court declined to address the issue of whether the evidence was intentionally withheld until a later hearing. In February 2012, Griffin filed an unopposed motion to modify his life sentence to time served, which the circuit court granted. Griffin received three years of unsupervised probation. The probation was terminated early in December 2012.

No longer in custody, Griffin sued the Baltimore City Police Department and three of its former detectives under section 1983 in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland for their alleged role in concealing potentially exculpatory evidence. The district court dismissed Griffin's claim.

In a unanimous decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of Griffin's claim. The court found that section 1983 claims alleging an unlawful withholding of exculpatory evidence may not lie when the underlying conviction has neither been invalidated nor compromised through state or federal means.

Section 1983 claims are barred when, if successful, the claim would undermine the validity of a still-valid, prior conviction. As the Supreme Court explained in Heck v. Humphrey, there are two concerns that support such foreclosure. First, a successful section 1983 plaintiff could win damages premised on the wrongfulness of a still-valid conviction, resulting in "two conflicting resolutions" to the same controversy. Second, a section 1983 claim is, in effect, a collateral attack on a conviction, yet Congress has designated habeas corpus as the exclusive federal remedy for state prisoners seeking release from confinement.

The court recognized some exceptions to the bar articulated in Heck. First, section 1983 claims that do not necessarily compromise a still-valid conviction may still proceed. Second, if a section 1983 plaintiff could not have practically sought habeas relief while in custody, then a post-release 1983 complaint will not be barred by Heck.

The court held that Griffin's section 1983 claim was barred because he alleged an unlawful withholding of exculpatory evidence, which, if successful, would necessarily compromise the underlying conviction. Therefore, because Griffin's state conviction is still-valid, Heck barred Griffin's section 1983 claim. The court also explained that Griffin's release from custody did not alter this result because to do so would impermissibly turn section 1983 into a new front for federal post-conviction review.

The court further held that Griffin's section 1983 claim was barred because he had ample opportunity to seek federal habeas relief while in custody. The court explained that Griffin had the right to file the state authorized petition which ultimately led to the discovery of the exculpatory evidence during his three decades of incarceration. Moreover, even after the exculpatory evidence was found, Griffin was incarcerated for sixteen additional months - during which time he could have petitioned for habeas review. Therefore, the court concluded, Griffin's section 1983 claim ran square into the Heck bar again.

In dicta, the court made clear that its opinion did not foreclose Griffin from all recourse related to his alleged unlawful incarceration. Griffin may employ state remedies to either recover damages or to invalidate his conviction. Using section 1983 to mount a collateral attack on a still-valid state conviction, however, would intrude on long-settled principles of federalism and dual-sovereignty. Instead, habeas corpus is the appropriate means to mount such an attack.

In her concurrence, Judge Harris agreed with the majority on all points, but she highlighted the fact that the decision is in no way a judgment on the merits of Griffin's section 1983 claim. Rather, to be consistent with Heck, Griffin must invalidate his state conviction through state procedure before seeking federal relief through section 1983.

To read the full opinion click here.

Panel: Judges Wilkinson, Agee, and Harris

Argument Date: 09/17/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 10/27/2015

Docket Number: Case No. 14-1494

Decided: Affirmed by Published Opinion

Case Alert Author: Travis Bullock, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Charles N. Curlett, Jr., LEVIN & CURLETT LLC, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. Daniel C. Beck, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Sarah F. Lacey, LEVIN & CURLETT LLC, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. George A. Nilson, City Solicitor of Baltimore City, Suzanne Sangree, Chief, Glenn Marrow, Deputy Chief, Police Legal Affairs Division, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Judge Wilkinson

Concurring Opinion: Judge Harris

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 12/03/2015 03:04 PM     4th Circuit  

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