Courtesy of James R. Touchstone of Jones & Mayer
On April 19, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal, in Baranchik v. Fizulich, 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 356 (Cal. App. 2d. Dist. Apr. 19, 2017), held that the plaintiff’s civil claim for excessive force was barred under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), because the criminal jury necessarily found the officer’s conduct to be lawful and not an unreasonable use of force. The Court further held that the subsequent dismissal of the plaintiff’s criminal conviction under California Penal Code section 1203.4 did not invalidate the conviction for purposes of removing the Heck bar preventing the plaintiff from bringing a civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”).
In September 2008, Eric Baranchik, Phillip Baranchik, and Tiffeney Pyle were involved in an incident at a bar in Redondo Beach. The incident was reported to the Redondo Beach Police Department (“RBPD”). A dispatch was issued about a bar fight and RBPD Officer Fizulich responded to the dispatch. By the time Officer Fizulich arrived, he was informed that one of the participants had left the bar. Officer Fizulich detained Phillip Baranchik, who fit the description of the suspect involved in the bar fight, observing that Phillip had slurred speech, bloodshot, watery eyes. Officer Fizulich also smelled the odor of alcohol coming from Phillip.
While Officer Fizulich was with Phillip, Eric Baranchik and Tiffeney Pyle approached. Two other RBPD officers had also arrived on the scene. As Eric approached, he stated that Phillip was his brother and questioned what was going on. One of the officers fired his Taser at Eric, incapacitating him. Believing Pyle was not complying with her commands, another officer fired her Taser at Pyle. Phillip, Eric, and Pyle were taken into custody, and released by the next day.
Eric was charged with violations of: (1) Penal Code section 243(b) (battery against a peace officer); (2) Penal Code section 148(a)(1) (resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer); and (3) Penal Code section 647(f) (public intoxication). At his jury trial, Eric argued that he was not guilty because the officer used excessive force by deploying his Taser on Eric. The jury was given an instruction on the issue of excessive force, which stated that the government had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one of the RBPD officers involved in the incident was lawfully performing his or her duties as a peace officer, and that, if the government had not met that burden, the jury must find Eric not guilty of the charges of battery against a peace officer and resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer.
The jury convicted Eric of resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer in violation of Penal Code section 148(a)(1), and acquitted him of the other two charges. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court affirmed his conviction in August 2012, finding that the issue of excessive force was a question of fact that was properly resolved by the jury in rendering its verdict. In April 2014, the criminal trial court granted Eric’s petition to dismiss his criminal conviction under Penal Code section 1203.4. Section 1203.4 permits dismissal of a guilty verdict after a person has successfully fulfilled their term of probation.
In May 2012, Eric filed a civil complaint in state court, alleging the officer used excessive force in using his Taser on him. In June 2013, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment or adjudication, arguing that Eric’s conviction for violating Penal Code section 148 barred his excessive force claim. The judge granted defendants’ motion for summary adjudication.
After Eric’s criminal conviction was dismissed under Penal Code section 1203.4, Eric filed a motion in the civil case in November 2014, seeking to vacate the prior summary adjudication on the excessive force claim. He argued that circumstances had changed because his conviction had been dismissed and he was therefore no longer barred from pursuing his excessive force claim. The judge denied Eric’s motion to vacate the summary adjudication order and entered judgment in favor of defendants. Eric appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
Excessive Force Claim Precluded by Heck
The Second District Court of Appeal concluded that Eric’s civil claim for excessive force was barred under Heck because the criminal jury “necessarily found [the officer’s] conduct to be lawful and not an unreasonable use of force.” In reaching its determination, the Court, citing the California Supreme Court’s discussion in Yount v. City of Sacramento, 43 Cal. 4th 885 (2008), explained that Heck bars a Section 1983 claim if it is “inconsistent with a prior criminal conviction or sentence arising out of the same facts, unless the conviction or sentence has been subsequently resolved in the plaintiff’s favor.” The Court explained that Heck requires a reviewing court to resolve three questions: (1) Was there an underlying conviction or sentence relating to the Section 1983 claim? (2) Would a judgment in favor of the plaintiff in the Section 1983 action “necessarily imply” the invalidity of the prior conviction or sentence? (3) If so, was the prior conviction or sentence already invalidated or otherwise favorably terminated?
Eric argued that defendants did not meet their burden of demonstrating that Eric’s excessive force claim, if successful, would “necessarily imply” the invalidity of his conviction under Penal Code section 148(a)(1) for resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer. The Court of Appeal disagreed. The Court explained that the trial court had taken judicial notice of the relevant facts from Eric’s criminal trial and subsequent appeal before granting the motion for summary adjudication in favor of defendants. In those proceedings, Eric had argued that the officer had used excessive force, and the jury was instructed to find Eric not guilty if it found that the officer used unreasonable or unlawful force. However, the Court noted, the jury still convicted Eric of violating Penal Code section 148(a)(1), and the appellate division had rejected Eric’s argument that the officer was not engaged in the lawful performance of his duties as a peace officer. Therefore, the Court concluded, because the question of whether the officer had lawfully deployed the Taser was intertwined with the jury’s decision to convict Eric of violating Penal Code section 148(a)(1), his conviction inherently included a finding that the officer’s actions were lawful.
Dismissal under Penal Code section 1203.4 Does Not Invalidate a Conviction for Purpose of Removing Heck Bar
Eric also argued that the Heck bar no longer applied because his conviction was dismissed under Penal Code section 1203.4. The Court of Appeal disagreed, concluding that a dismissal under Penal Code section 1203.4 does not invalidate a conviction for purposes of preventing a plaintiff from bringing a civil action. The Court explained that a court, in determining whether a civil action is precluded by Heck, must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his or her conviction or sentence—if it would, the complaint must be dismissed “unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or sentence has already been invalidated.”
To demonstrate a conviction or sentence has been invalidated or favorably terminated, a plaintiff must prove 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 call into question be a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. The Court found that a dismissal under Penal Code section 1203.4 cannot be properly characterized as an expungement, and that Eric did not cite any case law that supported his argument that the dismissal under Section 1203.4 invalidated his conviction or qualified as a favorable termination similar to an executive pardon or a reversal on appeal. The Court concluded that even after the criminal trial court granted his petition under Section 1203.4, there remained a “conviction or sentence” that would necessarily be invalided if Eric were to prevail on his civil claim, and therefore Eric’s excessive force claim remained barred under Heck.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
This case makes clear that, at least in the Second District Court of Appeal, if a person’s underlying conviction is dismissed under Penal Code section 1203.4, that person will be precluded by Heck v. Humphrey from bringing a civil claim because such dismissal does not amount to the conviction being invalidated or favorably terminated. This ruling, therefore, will expand upon the array of future cases in which the Heck bar from civil liability will apply, thus assisting law enforcement in obtaining dismissal of excessive force and false arrest claims. As such, the Baranchik decision represents a very favorable ruling for law enforcement.
As in all matters involving interpretation of the law, it is important to secure advice and guidance from your agency’s legal counsel. As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact James R. Touchstone at (714) 446-1400 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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