Criminal Record Clear for a Civil Suit? Court of Appeal Says Think Again

Individuals who are criminally convicted of resisting arrest are typically barred from pursuing civil claims for excessive force unless they have their conviction overturned. However, what happens when that person has the conviction cleared from their record under Penal Code Section 1203.4, which allows judges to dismiss charges after the completion of probation? The Court of Appeal in Baranchik v. Fizulich said that’s not enough, and upheld the dismissal of a Plaintiff’s excessive force claim.

Underlying Incident & Criminal Case

On September 18, 2008, two brothers Phillip and Eric, and a woman Tiffeney were at a Redondo Beach bar when they got into an argument with other patrons, and then left. When the Redondo Beach Police Department Officers Ho and Tumbocon responded to a call about the fight, they detained Phillip nearby. Eric alleges that after he said “That’s my brother. What’s going on here?”, Officer Ho fired his Taser at him. The police contend that Eric was ignoring commands to stay back.

Eric was charged with 1) assaulting Office Tumbocon, 2) resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer, and 3) public intoxication. At trial, Eric’s attorneys argued that he was not guilty because Officer Ho used excessive force when he deployed his Taser. They asked and received a jury instruction which indicated that if the government did not prove their burden of showing that the officers acted lawfully, the jury must find Eric not guilty of the first two charges of assault and resisting a peace officer.

Eric was acquitted of the assault and public intoxication, but was convicted of resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer.

Eric appealed his conviction arguing that his conviction was improper because Officer Ho was not acting lawfully when he employed his Taser. However, the Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction, arguing that this factual issue was properly resolved by the jury.

Civil Lawsuit

Eric subsequently filed a lawsuit for excessive force, amongst other claims, against the Redondo Beach Police Officers. The Court dismissed this claim under the doctrine Heck v. Humphrey, which says that a person cannot bring a civil claim for damages if it would contradict the validity of his criminal conviction.

Eric appealed, arguing that his excessive force claim would not contradict his conviction for resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer. He also argued that the Heck bar no longer applies because his conviction was subsequently dismissed under Penal Code 1203.4.

The Court of Appeal first held that excessive force claims are exactly the type of claim that contradicts a conviction for resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer, and the only way a person could proceed with a lawsuit is if he had his conviction overturned or otherwise invalidated.

The Court of Appeal next held that a dismissal under section 1203.4 did not fit the definition of overturning or invalidating a criminal conviction. Section 1203.4 simply gives a judge discretion to clear a person’s record after they complete probation. It does not imply that the underlying facts that a jury used to convict a person are untrue.

The Court of Appeal concluded “even after the court presiding over Eric’s criminal case granted his petition under section 1203.4, there remained a ‘conviction or sentence’… that would necessarily be invalidated if Eric were to prevail on his civil claim. Eric’s excessive force claim remains barred under Heck.”

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal’s decision solidifies the Heck v. Humphrey, which is an important defense to prevent individuals who are criminally convicted of crimes to later try to profit off of suing police for the same incident.

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