The case of Fetters v. County of Los Angeles arose after a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy shot a 15-year-old boy as he was on a bicycle and holding a toy gun. The facts were of course disputed as to whether the boy (Fetters) had pointed the gun at the deputy or whether he had dropped the gun, but Fetters survived the shooting and filed a Section 1983 lawsuit against the deputy who shot him as well as the deputy's employer, the County of Los Angeles. A jury agreed with Fetters side of the story and awarded him 1.1 million in damages and the court then awarded his lawyers over 2 million in attorney fees.
The problem was that the government had filed charges against Fetters for brandishing a firearm in the aftermath of the shooting. Fetters took a plea in juvenile court and was sentenced to informal probation. The charges were dismissed after he successfully completed his probation.
The trial judge had ruled that Fetters Section 1983 case was not barred under the case of Heck v. Humphrey (discussed below). But after the jury reached its verdict for Fetters, the defendants appealed on Heck preclusion grounds and the Second District agreed with them and reversed the award and fees. The Second District held that even though Fetters may have entered a "no contest plea," and was in juvenile court and ultimately had the charges dismissed that the underlying probation sentence barred his civil right case.
Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) is a United States Supreme Court case that unfortunately works against civil rights plaintiffs in many cases. The case of Heck v. Humphrey, with few exceptions, makes it extremely difficult for someone who has taken a plea or been convicted of an offense such as battery on a police officer or resisting arrest to sue for civil rights violations. The theory is that in such cases the civil rights lawsuit constitutes an impermissible "collateral attack" on the underlying criminal conviction.
The major problem with Heck v. Humphrey and so-called "Heck preclusion" is that it can be easily misused. If a police officer uses excessive force against a victim, then that officer can turn around and initiate a criminal case against the victim for battery on a police officer and/or resisting arrest, either to retaliate against the victim or to insulate himself and his department against a civil rights lawsuit. This puts victims of legitimate excessive force claims between a rock and a hard place, having to decide whether to fight their criminal case and win so they can sue for civil rights violations or taking some sort of plea and trying to get on with their lives.
Whatever the circumstances at issue in the Fetters case, the recent appellate court ruling is a reminder that Heck v. Humphrey and its consequences is an issue to be reckoned with in cases involving both civil rights violations and criminal charges.