Monday, November 21, 2005

Yount v. City of Sacramento (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 9, 2005)

Look, I'm no cheerleader. Of course, I say that precisely because I'm defensive, particularly in light of what I'm about to say. Since I'm going to compliment Justice Butz again. As I did here and here. My only defense is that I've also said that I didn't think that one of her opinions was all that impressive. Still, I'm a fan. At least thus far.

Why, you might ask? Because of opinions like this one. Which is really good, and which cogently engages in a sophisticated and persausive synthesis of various competing lines of federal and state precedent. It's the type of opinion that never fails to impress. And it's definitely worth a read.

Among other things, this case is about an important issue: When can a plaintiff file a Section 1983 suit based upon conduct that transpired during the course of an arrest which he was convicted of resisting? As you can imagine, such lawsuits are filed somewhat frequently. As a result, there's a large body of precedent about when such suits are cognizable. Particularly after Heck, in which the Supreme Court held that Section 1983 claims can't be brought when doing so would essentially constitute a collateral attack upon the validity of an underlying criminal conviction. So, for example, you can't file a Section 1983 claim asserting that the police set you up in order to convict you; absent first vacating the conviction, you're boned. ("Boned" -- of course -- being a formal legal term for a particular typical of res judicata.)

The basic rule in this regard makes total sense. The problem is that lower courts have sometimes been a bit aggressive -- in part relying upon fairly broad language articulated in footnote 6 of Justice Scalia's opinion in Heck -- in their application of that case. For example, courts routinely apply Heck to bounce Section 1983 claims alleging excessive force during an arrest. The theory being that if you were convicted of (or pled guilty to), say, resisting arrest, you can't bring a Section 1983 claim against the police, since your claim that the police used excessive force is inconsistent with your conviction, since if they used excessive force, you were entitled to resist. Which we know you weren't, since you were convicted.

This is a facially appealing argument, and in some cases, is totally correct. However, in the real world, this theory often doesn't work. For example, imagine that the sequence of events transpires this way: (1) you resist arrest, (2) they handcuff you and put you in a patrol car, and (3) then, while you're restrained, the police beat the crap out of you. The fact that you're convicted of (1) is no way inconsistent with a Section 1983 claim for (3). But lower courts often misread Heck to preclude Section 1983 claims in precisely such cases. Moreover, in practice, the categorical rule articulated by Heck is hard to apply because (1) and (3) are often close in time; moreover, the actual events that underlie your conviction for resisting are often unclear, particularly in cases involving a guilty plea.

The great thing about Justice Butz is that she -- unlike many lower courts -- can tell the difference between these competing concepts. She does a great job explaining why certain cases make sense, why others don't, and how the various competing principles are properly resolved and applied. Mind you, the rationale that I've articulated above is my own, and she explains the theory a little differently. But they're two sides of the same coin. Plus, as a bonus, she also explains and agrees with Smith v. Hemet, a Ninth Circuit case which I discussed here and in which I also agreed with the majority (rather than the dissent). So I'm totally on board with everything that Justice Butz says.

Finally -- and I know this post is already a bit long -- this particular case also exemplifies precisely why the collateral estoppel principles articulated in Heck can't be categorically applied, regardless of what Justice Scalia inartfully said in footnote 6. Here, the plaintiff resisted arrest, and (in an attempt to subdue him) was subsequently tasered, handcuffed, and put in restraints by the police. So far so good. But then, after he was restrained, he started to struggle a bit more. So one of the police officers grabbed for his taser in an attempt to stun him once more. And pulled the trigger. One problem: instead of grabbing his taser, he accidentally grabbed his gun. And hence shot the plaintiff with his nine millimeter. Oops!

Plaintiff's conviction for resisting arrest is obviously not inconsistent with a claim for excessive force based upon such events. And yet, relying on Heck and other authorities, the trial court entered judgment for the defendants on that basis. Justice Butz knows that this is wrong, and cogently explains why. A good opinion.

P.S. - Memo to all police officers: Please make sure that's actually a taser in your hand before squeezing the trigger. It's not a difficult task. And definitely worth the effort. Plaintiff wasn't killed here. The next time we might not be so lucky.