Court of Appeals Limits the Applicability of Heck v. Humphrey

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The California Court of Appeals held on November 9, 2011 that the heirs of an individual killed by police while engaged in a crime are not precluded from bringing an excessive force lawsuit by the resisting arrest conviction of a co-participant in the crime.  In Beets v. County of Los Angeles, L.A. County Sheriff's deputies were chasing a car driven by the plaintiffs' son.  The son and his passenger bailed from the car and got into a nearby truck, which was then surrounded by the deputies on foot.  The two suspects engaged the deputies in a fight from inside the truck, and the plaintiffs' son started the truck and drove it into a police car and then towards one of the deputies, who shot and killed the son.  The passenger was tried and convicted of assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer.  Thereafter, the plaintiffs brought suit against the County, alleging that the Deputies had used excessive force against their son.  The trial court granted the County's demurrer and dismissed the case, finding that the passenger's conviction precluded the plaintiffs' lawsuit.

The Court of Appeal reversed on November 9, 2011, finding that the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Heck v. Humphrey, which prohibits a civil rights lawsuit that would necessarily invalidate a previous criminal conviction of the plaintiff, did not apply because the plaintiffs' son was not represented in the passenger's criminal trial.  Although these set of facts are not likely to arise frequently, the Beets decision does limit the availability of the Heckpreclusion defense in similar circumstances.  It is also important to note that this a California Court of Appeal decision, and not binding on federal courts, which often determine issues arising under the Heck case.

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