In 1994, in Heck v. Humphrey, the Supreme Court ruled that people convicted of a crime are barred from filing a civil lawsuit against police or other officials if their claim would necessarily imply that their conviction is invalid. What that means for the wrongfully convicted is that their convictions must be formally overturned before they can file a lawsuit for money damages.

It also means that government officials who commit misconduct can derail potential civil rights suits against them before they can even be filed—if their victims can be bullied into pleading guilty to a crime. That’s nearly what happened to IJ client James King, who was beaten unconscious after officers mistook him for someone else. James was falsely charged with assaulting the officers, and a prosecutor offered James a deal: Plead guilty to a lesser offense—and be barred by Heck v. Humphrey from suing the officers—or go to trial on several serious felony charges. James turned down the deal, and fortunately a jury acquitted him. But many victims are not willing to risk the possibility of a lengthy sentence. 

Also worryingly, in recent years lower courts are increasingly misapplying Heck to dismiss civil rights claims even where plaintiffs were never convicted of a crime. In Mitchell v. Morton County and Duarte v. City of Stockton, the plaintiffs were victims of police violence who were charged with resisting arrest; they entered pre-trial agreements that produced no convictions, and yet federal district courts held thatHeck barred them from suing the police officers for violating their civil rights.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court seems to be interested in correcting lower courts that misapply Heck. In Thompson v. Clark, police officers allegedly lied to get a man falsely charged with resisting arrest and obstruction. Those charges were eventually dropped, but even so a federal appeals court ruled that the man could not sue the officers because merely having the charges dismissed did not “affirmatively indicate his innocence.” Under that standard—which six other circuits adhered to as well—even people found “not guilty” at trial might be barred—because “not guilty” is not the same thing as “affirmatively innocent.” And prosecutors could slam the courthouse doors shut on civil rights claims simply by charging victims with a crime and then dismissing the charges. Thankfully, in 2022, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court and reaffirmed that a plaintiff “need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction.”

Learn more about our Immunity and Accountability work.

The Institute for Justice’s Project on Immunity and Accountability is devoted to a simple idea: If we the people must follow the law, our government must follow the Constitution.

Learn More