By Robert J. Hansen
Stockton, CA – When Stockton police officers Michael Gandy and Kevin Hachler broke Francisco Duarte’s leg and charged him with resisting arrest in 2017, he and another man sued the police department for being wrongfully arrested and subjected to excessive force.
A district court judge dismissed Duarte’s lawsuit, ruling that the Supreme Court’s decision in Heck v. Humphrey (1994) bars a lawsuit seeking damages that if successful would “necessarily imply” the invalidity of a related prior criminal conviction.
Now, the California Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s dismissal of a Stockton man’s false arrest and liability claims against the Stockton Police Department and the city of Stockton last month.
“We also reverse the summary judgment in favor of Duarte’s excessive force claim,” the court wrote.
The MacArthur Justice Center (MJC), alongside civil rights attorney Yolanda Huang, represented Duarte in his appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
“That decision was a result of the Heck loophole, which has allowed officers to evade accountability by simply arresting and charging the person whose rights they violated,” MJC said.
Lisa Brixby, Duarte’s attorney with MJC, said that the Ninth Circuit confirmed that the Heck bar doesn’t apply to civil rights plaintiffs who were never convicted of any crime, rejecting officers’ attempts to expand what she described as a “harmful doctrine.”
“Police have long used the Heck doctrine as a way to avoid accountability for their misconduct,” Brixby said. “Like the officers who beat Francisco Duarte so severely that they broke his leg just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
This important win significantly narrows the Heck loophole that has allowed police officers to escape accountability for even the most egregious of misconduct, according to the MacArthur Justice Center.
The Ninth Circuit held that the Heck bar does not apply in a situation where criminal charges are dismissed after entry of a plea that was held in abeyance pending the defendant’s compliance with certain conditions.
“The panel rejected appellees’ argument that by pleading no contest and completing the conditions of his agreement with the prosecution, plaintiff was functionally convicted and sentenced,” the court ruled.
The Ninth held that the Heck bar requires an actual judgment of conviction, not its functional equivalent, and further held that the district court erred in dismissing the plaintiff’s municipal liability claims against the City of Stockton and the Stockton Police Department.
“People like our client, whose leg was broken by a baton in a random attack by Stockton police officers, have been barred from vindicating their rights with a lawsuit because they were charged with resisting arrest, despite the charges being dropped,” the MacArthur Justice Center said via Twitter.
People like our client, whose leg was broken by a baton in a random attack by Stockton police officers, have been barred from vindicating their rights with a lawsuit because they were charged with resisting arrest, despite the charges being dropped.
— MacArthur Justice Center (@MacArthrJustice) March 1, 2023
Francisco Duarte was heading back to his car after leaving a taco truck in 2017 when he saw Stockton police officers chasing and tackling a stranger.
The police officers pulled out wooden batons and one of the officers allegedly ran up, grabbed Duarte by his shoulder and threw him, face forward, to the ground, according to court documents.
Duarte claimed that one of the officers placed his knees on his neck and head before another officer hit him multiple times on the back and leg with his baton, breaking his leg.
Stockton PD then charged Duarte with resisting arrest.
When Duarte attempted to sue the Stockton PD and the officers who broke his leg, the district court barred his lawsuit, applying the U.S. Supreme Court case Heck v. Humphrey, reasoning that his suit would undermine a criminal conviction.
This despite all charges against Duarte being dismissed, and the plaintiff never being convicted of anything.
The Stockton PD could not be reached for comment.
Duarte’s lawsuit has been remanded back to the district court for further proceedings.
“The lower court’s dismissal of our client’s suit [now] allows him his day in court to hold the officers who brutally attacked him accountable,” MJC said.