By: Zachery Lopes, Partner
On July 19, 2022, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit published its opinion in Lemos v. County of Sonoma,1 circumscribing the practical reach of what is known as the Heck doctrine2 in federal civil rights cases. Generally, the Heck doctrine precludes a civil rights plaintiff from maintaining a lawsuit that would result in a judgment necessarily implying the invalidity of that plaintiff’s criminal conviction. In Heck, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a federal prisoner could not maintain a civil rights damages claim for unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment without first proving that the conviction or sentence had been reversed through a direct appeal or otherwise declared invalid through a direct attack on the conviction such as issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. In other words, to sue for damages for a conviction, the criminal proceeding leading to that conviction first must have ultimately terminated in favor of the accused to avoid the “creation of conflicting [judicial] resolutions arising out of the same or identical transaction.”3
In the case before the Ninth Circuit, plaintiff Gabrielle Lemos filed a civil rights damages action alleging that a sheriff’s deputy used excessive force in arresting her. The Ninth Circuit considered whether the Heck doctrine barred her claim because she was convicted under California law of willfully resisting, delaying or obstructing the deputy during the same occurrence for which she claimed excessive force.4 The Ninth Circuit’s decision emphasizes that the Heck doctrine only applies if a civil rights plaintiff’s prior criminal conviction would necessarily be impliedly invalidated, and such a determination requires a specific analysis of the acts underlying the criminal conviction and the civil rights allegation.
In 2015, a Sonoma County deputy was attempting to interview a vehicle passenger whom the deputy believed may have been the victim of a domestic violence incident. Three people were outside the passenger’s door — the passenger’s two sisters and mother. One of those sisters, Lemos, had “just graduated from high school” and had consumed alcohol. While the deputy attempted to open the passenger door to speak with the suspected victim, Lemos stepped between the deputy and the passenger and shouted that he could not lawfully open the vehicle door. This prompted the deputy to close the door and attempt to explain to all involved why he wanted to speak to the suspected victim.
Despite several minutes of explanation, the onlookers were unconvinced. During this attempted explanation, the onlookers were uncooperative, to say the least. This included Lemos falsely claiming that the deputy had “assaulted” the suspected victim (this never occurred, as the entire incident was captured by body-worn camera), and Lemos disparaging both the deputy and even his mother, who was not present at the scene, with sexual insults. Eventually, the suspected victim’s mother instructed Lemos to go inside a nearby house. She began to do so and walked past the deputy, ignoring his commands to stop. This prompted the deputy to try and grab her wrists in an attempt to handcuff her, but she pulled away. The deputy then tackled her and placed her under arrest.
Lemos was charged — and convicted — with resisting, delaying or obstructing the deputy in violation of Penal Code section 148(a)(1). The jury in her criminal trial was instructed it could find her guilty based on any one of four acts: (1) if she “made physical contact with [the deputy] as he was trying to open the truck door”; (2) if she “placed herself between” the deputy and the suspected victim; (3) if she “blocked [the deputy] from opening the truck door and seeing or speaking with” the suspected victim; or (4) if she “pulled away when [the deputy] attempted to grab her.” The jury found her guilty, but did not identify which specific act she committed in violation of the Penal Code.
Despite her conviction, Lemos sued the deputy in federal court for alleged violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of the deputy (tossed the lawsuit) based on the “Heck doctrine.” The district court found that “[g]iven Lemos and her cohorts’ continuous screaming and provoking,” there was “no temporal or spatial distinction or other separation between the conduct for which [she] was convicted by a jury and the conduct which forms the basis of her” civil rights allegation. The court concluded that the deputy’s actions “form[ed] one uninterrupted interaction and the jury’s finding that he did not use excessive force would be inconsistent with a [civil rights] claim based on an event from that same encounter.”
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court. The court explained that in deciding whether a successful civil rights claim “would necessarily imply the invalidity of a conviction,” a court must determine which specific acts formed the basis for that conviction. The Heck doctrine would only bar the civil rights claim if that claim was predicated on the same conduct by a peace officer that a criminal jury had already determined was lawful. As applied to Lemos’s criminal conviction, that meant determining exactly which of the four acts the jury found was committed. However, because the jury never specified exactly which acts it found occurred, and only the last of the four acts presented a conflict with the civil rights claim of excessive force (the attempted wrist grab), there could not be a finding that the lawsuit’s claim of excessive force would necessarily imply the invalidity of her conviction.
Importantly, the court noted that under California state law, a peace officer’s “subsequent use of excessive force [does] not negate the lawfulness of the initial arrest attempt, or negate the unlawfulness of the criminal defendant’s attempt to resist it.” (Citing Yount v. City of Sacramento  43 Cal.4th 885.) In other words, even if a criminal conviction and civil lawsuit arise from “one continuous chain of events, two isolated factual contexts [could] exist, the first giving rise to criminal liability on the part of the criminal defendant, and the second giving rise to civil liability on the part of the arresting officer.” And in Lemos’ case, “the jury was instructed that multiple acts could serve as the predicate for the criminal conviction, and [the court] did not know which the jury chose.”
The court’s decision represents an important reminder that reviewing courts will often dissect a peace officer’s actions with intense factual scrutiny. One continuous incident can include multiple distinct acts each with its own legal consequences, for both the peace officer and suspect in question. A suspect engaging in unlawful action at one point during a continuous chain of events will not negate a peace officer’s obligation to conduct his/her duties lawfully throughout the entirety of an incident.
About the Author
Zachery A. Lopes is a partner in the Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver, PC Collective Bargaining and Litigation Practice Groups. He also represents clients in legal defense matters and officer-involved critical incidents.
- Gabbi Lemos v. County of Sonoma, et al., Case No. 19-15222 ___F.4th___ (9th Cir. 2022.) ; 2022 U.S.App. LEXIS 19856.
- Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).
- 512 U.S. at 484, 486-487.
- Lemos, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 19856 at *3–4.