Heck v. Humphrey, et al.

Decision Date24 June 1994
Docket Number936188
PartiesRoy HECK v. James HUMPHREY et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus *

While petitioner Heck's direct appeal from an Indiana conviction was pending, he filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking damages — but not injunctive relief or release from custody on the claim that respondents, acting under color of state law, had engaged in unlawful acts that had led to his arrest and conviction. After the Federal District Court dismissed this action without prejudice, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld Heck's conviction and sentence, and his two petitions for federal habeas relief were rejected. The Court of Appeals then affirmed the dismissal of the § 1983 complaint and approved the District Court's reasoning: If the plaintiff in a federal civil rights action is challenging the legality of his conviction, so that his victory would require his release even if he had not sought that relief, the suit must be classified as a habeas corpus action and dismissed if the plaintiff has failed to exhaust his state remedies.

Held: In order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 494, 93 S.Ct. 1827, 1838-39, 36 L.Ed.2d 439, and Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 554, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 2973-74, 41 L.Ed.2d 935, distinguished. The foregoing conclusion follows upon recognition that the common law of torts provides the appropriate starting point for the § 1983 inquiry, see Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 257-258, 98 S.Ct. 1042, 1049-1050, 55 L.Ed.2d 252; that the tort of malicious prosecution, which provides the closest analogy to claims of the type considered here, requires the allegation and proof of termination of the prior criminal proceeding in favor of the accused, see, e.g., Carpenter v. Nutter, 127 Cal. 61, 59 P. 301; and that this Court has long been concerned that judgments be final and consistent and has been disinclined to expand opportunities for collateral attack on criminal convictions, see, e.g., Parke v. Raley, 506 U.S. ----, ----, 113 S.Ct. 517, ----, 121 L.Ed.2d 391. Although the issue in cases such as this is not, therefore, the exhaustion of state remedies, the dismissal of Heck's § 1983 action was correct because both courts below found that his damages claims challenged the legality of his conviction. Pp. ____.

997 F.2d 355 (CA 7 1993), affirmed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion. SOUTER, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined.

Charles Rothfeld, Washington, DC, for petitioner.

Matthew R. Gutwein, Indianapolis, IN, for respondents.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a state prisoner may challenge the constitutionality of his conviction in a suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.


Petitioner Roy Heck was convicted in Indiana state court of voluntary manslaughter for the killing of Rickie Heck, his wife, and is serving a 15-year sentence in an Indiana prison. While the appeal from his conviction was pending, petitioner, proceeding pro se, filed this suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,1 naming as defendants respondents James Humphrey and Robert Ewbank, Dearborn County prosecutors, and Michael Krinoph, an investigator with the Indiana State Police. The complaint alleged that respondents, acting under color of state law, had engaged in an "unlawful, unreasonable, and arbitrary investigation" leading to petitioner's arrest; "knowingly destroyed" evidence "which was exculpatory in nature and could have proved [petitioner's] innocence"; and caused "an illegal and unlawful voice identification procedure" to be used at petitioner's trial. App. 5-6. The complaint sought, among other things, compensatory and punitive monetary damages. It did not ask for injunctive relief, and petitioner has not sought release from custody in this action.

The District Court dismissed the action without prejudice, because the issues it raised "directly implicate the legality of [petitioner's] confinement," Id., at 13. While petitioner's appeal to the Seventh Circuit was pending, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld his conviction and sentence on direct appeal, Heck v. State, 552 N.E.2d 446, 449 (Ind.1990); his first petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court was dismissed because it contained unexhausted claims; and his second federal habeas petition was denied, and the denial affirmed by the Seventh Circuit.

When the Seventh Circuit reached petitioner's appeal from dismissal of his § 1983 complaint, it affirmed the judgment and approved the reasoning of the District Court: "If, regardless of the relief sought, the plaintiff [in a federal civil rights action] is challenging the legality of his conviction,2 so that if he won his case the state would be obliged to release him even if he hadn't sought that relief, the suit is classified as an application for habeas corpus and the plaintiff must exhaust his state remedies, on pain of dismissal if he fails to do so." 997 F.2d 355, 357 (1993). Heck filed a petition for certiorari, which we granted. 510 U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 751, 127 L.Ed.2d 69 (1994).


This case lies at the intersection of the two most fertile sources of federal-court prisoner litigation — the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Rev.Stat. § 1979, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the federal habeas corpus statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Both of these provide access to a federal forum for claims of unconstitutional treatment at the hands of state officials, but they differ in their scope and operation. In general, exhaustion of state remedies "is not a prerequisite to an action under § 1983," Patsy v. Board of Regents of Fla., 457 U.S. 496, 501, 102 S.Ct. 2557, 2560, 73 L.Ed.2d 172 (1982) (emphasis added), even an action by a state prisoner, id., at 509, 102 S.Ct., at 2564. The federal habeas corpus statute, by contrast, requires that state prisoners first seek redress in a state forum.3 See Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 102 S.Ct. 1198, 71 L.Ed.2d 379 (1982).

Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 93 S.Ct. 1827, 36 L.Ed.2d 439 (1973), considered the potential overlap between these two provisions, and held that habeas corpus is the exclusive remedy for a state prisoner who challenges the fact or duration of his confinement and seeks immediate or speedier release, even though such a claim may come within the literal terms of § 1983. Id., at 488-490, 93 S.Ct., at 1835-1837. We emphasize that Preiser did not create an exception to the "no exhaustion" rule of § 1983; it merely held that certain claims by state prisoners are not cognizable under that provision, and must be brought in habeas corpus proceedings, which do contain an exhaustion requirement.

This case is clearly not covered by the holding of Preiser, for petitioner seeks not immediate or speedier release, but monetary damages, as to which he could not "have sought and obtained fully effective relief through federal habeas corpus proceedings." Id., at 488, 93 S.Ct., at 1835. See also id., at 494, 93 S.Ct., at 1838-1839; Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 104, 101 S.Ct. 411, 420, 66 L.Ed.2d 308 (1980). In dictum, however, Preiser asserted that since a state prisoner seeking only damages "is attacking something other than the fact or length of . . . confinement, and . . . is seeking something other than immediate or more speedy release[,] . . . a damages action by a state prisoner could be brought under [§ 1983] in federal court without any requirement of prior exhaustion of state remedies." 411 U.S., at 494, 93 S.Ct., at 1838. That statement may not be true, however, when establishing the basis for the damages claim necessarily demonstrates the invalidity of the conviction. In that situation, the claimant can be said to be "attacking the fact or length of confinement," bringing the suit within the other dictum of Preiser: "Congress has determined that habeas corpus is the appropriate remedy for state prisoners attacking the validity of the fact or length of their confinement, and that specific determination must override the general terms of § 1983." Id., at 490, 93 S.Ct., at 1836. In the last analysis, we think the dicta of Preiser to be an unreliable, if not an unintelligible, guide: that opinion had no cause to address, and did not carefully consider, the damages question before us today.

Before addressing that question, we respond to petitioner's contention that it has already been answered, in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 41 L.Ed.2d 935 (1974). See Reply Brief for Petitioner 1. First of all, if Wolff had answered the question we would not have expressly reserved it 10 years later, as we did in Tower v. Glover, 467 U.S. 914, 104 S.Ct. 2820, 81 L.Ed.2d 758 (1984). See id., at 923, 104 S.Ct., at 2826. And secondly, a careful reading of Wolff itself does not support the contention. Like Preiser, Wolff involved a challenge to the procedures used by state prison officials to deprive prisoners of good-time credits. The § 1983 complaint sought restoration of good-time credits as well as "damages for the deprivation of civil rights resulting from the use of the...

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