Allen v. Curry

Decision Date09 December 1980
Docket NumberNo. 79-935,79-935
Citation449 U.S. 90,66 L.Ed.2d 308,101 S.Ct. 411
PartiesMarvin ALLEN et al., Petitioners, v. Willie McCURRY
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

At a hearing before respondent's criminal trial, a Missouri court denied, in part, respondent's motion to suppress, on Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, certain evidence that had been seized by the police. Respondent was subsequently convicted, and the conviction was affirmed on appeal. Because he did not assert that the state courts had denied him a "full and fair opportunity" to litigate his search-and-seizure claim, respondent was barred by Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465, 96 S.Ct. 3037, 49 L.Ed.2d 1067, from seeking a writ of habeas corpus in a federal district court. Nevertheless, he sought federal-court redress for the alleged constitutional violation by bringing a suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the officers who had seized the evidence in question. The Federal District Court granted summary judgment for the defendants, holding that collateral estoppel prevented respondent from relitigating the search-and-seizure question already decided against him in the state courts. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, noting that Stone v. Powell, supra, barred respondent from federal habeas corpus relief and that the § 1983 suit was, therefore, respondent's only route to a federal forum for his constitutional claim, and directed the trial court to allow him to proceed to trial unencumbered by collateral estoppel.

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in holding that respondent's inability to obtain federal habeas corpus relief upon his Fourth Amendment claim renders the doctrine of collateral estoppel inapplicable to his § 1983 suit. Nothing in the language or legislative history of § 1983 discloses any congressional intent to deny binding effect to a state-court judgment or decision when the state court, acting within its proper jurisdiction, has given the parties a full and fair opportunity to litigate federal claims, and thereby has shown itself willing and able to protect federal rights. Nor does anything in § 1983's legislative history reveal any purpose to afford less deference to judgments in state criminal proceedings than to those in state civil proceedings. Pp. 94-105.

8th Cir., 606 F.2d 795, reversed and remanded.

John J. Fitzgibbon, St. Louis, Mo., for petitioners.

Jeffrey J. Shank, St. Louis, Mo., for respondent.

Justice STEWART, delivered the opinion of the Court.

At a hearing before his criminal trial in a Missouri court, the respondent, Willie McCurry, invoked the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to suppress evidence that had been seized by the police. The trial court denied the suppression motion in part, and McCurry was subsequently convicted after a jury trial. The conviction was later affirmed on appeal. State v. McCurry, 587 S.W.2d 337 (Mo.App.1979). Because he did not assert that the state courts had denied him a "full and fair opportunity" to litigate his search and seizure claim, McCurry was barred by this Court's decision in Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465, 96 S.Ct. 3037, 49 L.Ed.2d 1067, from seeking a writ of habeas corpus in a federal district court. Nevertheless, he sought federal-court redress for the alleged constitutional violation by bringing a damages suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the officers who had entered his home and seized the evidence in question. We granted certiorari to consider whether the unavailability of federal habeas corpus prevented the police officers from raising the state courts' partial rejection of McCurry's constitutional claim as a collateral estoppel defense to the § 1983 suit against them for damages. 444 U.S. 1070, 100 S.Ct. 1012, 62 L.Ed.2d 751.

I

In April 1977, several undercover police officers, following an informant's tip that McCurry was dealing in heroin, went to his house in St. Louis, Mo., to attempt a purchase.1 Two officers, petitioners Allen and Jacobsmeyer, knocked on the front door, while the other officers hid nearby. When McCurry opened the door, the two officers asked to buy some heroin "caps." McCurry went back into the house and returned soon thereafter, firing a pistol at and seriously wounding Allen and Jacobsmeyer. After a gun battle with the other officers and their reinforcements, McCurry retreated into the house; he emerged again when the police demanded that he surrender. Several officers then entered the house without a warrant, purportedly to search for other persons inside. One of the officers seized drugs and other contraband that lay in plain view, as well as additional contraband he found in dresser drawers and in auto tires on the porch.

McCurry was charged with possession of heroin and assault with intent to kill. At the pretrial suppression hearing, the trial judge excluded the evidence seized from the dresser drawers and tires, but denied suppression of the evidence found in plain view. McCurry was convicted of both the heroin and assault offenses.

McCurry subsequently filed the present § 1983 action for $1 million in damages against petitioners Allen and Jacobsmeyer, other unnamed individual police officers, and the city of St. Louis and its police department. The complaint alleged a conspiracy to violate McCurry's Fourth Amendment rights, an unconstitutional search and seizure of his house, and an assault on him by unknown police officers after he had been arrested and handcuffed. The petitioners moved for summary judgment. The District Court apparently under stood the gist of the complaint to be the allegedly unconstitutional search and seizure and granted summary judgment, holding that collateral estoppel prevented McCurry from relitigating the search-and-seizure question already decided against him in the state courts. 466 F.Supp. 514 (ED Mo.1978).2

The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and remanded the case for trial. 606 F.2d 795 (CA8 1979).3 The appellate court said it was not holding that collateral estoppel was generally inapplicable in a § 1983 suit raising issues determined against the federal plaintiff in a state criminal trial. Id. at 798. But noting that Stone v. Powell, supra, barred McCurry from federal habeas corpus relief, and invoking "the special role of the federal courts in protecting civil rights," 606 F.2d, at 799, the court concluded that the § 1983 suit was McCurry's only route to a federal forum for his constitutional claim and directed the trial court to allow him to proceed to trial unencumbered by collateral estoppel.4

II

The federal courts have traditionally adhered to the related doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. Under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action. Cromwell v. County of Sac, 94 U.S. 351, 352, 24 L.Ed. 195. Under collateral estoppel, once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision may preclude relitigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case. Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153, 99 S.Ct. 970, 973, 59 L.Ed.2d 210.5 As this Court and other courts have often recognized, res judicata and collateral estoppel relieve parties of the cost and vexation of multiple lawsuits, conserve judicial resources, and, by preventing inconsistent decisions, encourage reliance on adjudication. Id., at 153-154, 99 S.Ct., at 973-974.

In recent years, this Court has reaffirmed the benefits of collateral estoppel in particular, finding the policies underlying it to apply in contexts not formerly recognized at common law. Thus, the Court has eliminated the requirement of mutuality in applying collateral estoppel to bar relitiga- tion of issues decided earlier in federal-court suits, Blonder-Tongue Laboratories, Inc. v. University of Illinois Foundation, 402 U.S. 313, 91 S.Ct. 1434, 28 L.Ed.2d 788, and has allowed a litigant who was not a party to a federal case to use collateral estoppel "offensively" in a new federal suit against the party who lost on the decided issue in the first case, Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore, 439 U.S. 322, 99 S.Ct. 645, 58 L.Ed.2d 552.6 But one general limitation the Court has repeatedly recognized is that the concept of collateral estoppel cannot apply when the party against whom the earlier decision is asserted did not have a "full and fair opportunity" to litigate that issue in the earlier case. Montana v. United States, supra, at 153, 99 S.Ct., at 973; Blonder-Tongue Laboratories, Inc. v. University of Illinois Foundation, supra, 402 U.S., at 328-329, 91 S.Ct., at 1443.7

The federal courts generally have also consistently accorded preclusive effect to issues decided by state courts. E. g., Montana v. United States, supra; Angel v. Bullington, 330 U.S. 183, 67 S.Ct. 657, 91 L.Ed. 832. Thus, res judicata and collateral estoppel not only reduce unnecessary litigation and foster reliance on ad- judication, but also promote the comity between state and federal courts that has been recognized as a bulwark of the federal system. See Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 43-45, 91 S.Ct. 746, 750-51, 27 L.Ed.2d 669.

Indeed, though the federal courts may look to the common law or to the policies supporting res judicata and collateral estoppel in assessing the preclusive effect of decisions of other federal courts, Congress has specifically required all federal courts to give preclusive effect to state-court judgments whenever the courts of the State from which the judgments emerged would do so:

"[J]udicial proceedings [of any court of any State] shall have the same full faith and credit in every court within the United States and its Territories and Possessions as they have by law or usage in the courts of such State. . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 1738 (1976).8

Huron Holding Corp. v. Lincoln Mine Operating Co., 312 U.S. 183, 193, 61 S.Ct. 513,...

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