5th Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Claims of Excessive Force and Unlawful Arrest

42 U.S.C. Section 1983, better known simply as Sec. 1983, is an extremely important federal civil rights law that allows people to seek damages for violations of their civil rights by state actors (those who work for the government). Such claims frequently arise from alleged excessive force or unlawful arrest by police officers. The recent 5th Circuit case of Walter v. Horseshoe Entertainment provides an interesting example of how Sec. 1983 claims work in real life.

On March 12, 2004, Rose Walter and Sylvester Shelton were involved in an incident at the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel in Bossier City. After getting into two altercations with other casino patrons, Walter and Shelton were told to leave the casino for twenty-four hours. The casino’s assistant security supervisor, Mr. James, called for police assistance from the Bossier City Police Department and Officer Estess arrived on the scene. After yet another altercation with Officer Estess and Mr. James, Walter and Shelton were forcibly restrained, handcuffed, and arrested. The two were subsequently charged and convicted in a Bossier City court for remaining after being forbidden and resisting arrest.

After their convictions, Walter and Shelton filed a petition in state court against Bossier City, Officer Estess, the Casino and the Casino’s parent company, Horseshoe Entertainment. Walter and Shelton claimed that they were falsely arrested and that Officer Estess and Mr. James had used excessive force in restraining them. The state court granted Bossier City and Officer Estes their motions for summary judgment. Horseshoe Entertainment removed the Sec. 1983 claim against them from state court to federal district court, where their motion for summary judgment was also granted.

Walter and Shelton appealed the district court’s decision to the 5th Circuit who affirmed the district court’s decision to grant Horseshoe Entertainment summary judgment. The 5th Circuit held that Walter and Shelton’s Sec. 1983 claims were barred under the Heck rule.

The Heck Rule comes from the Supreme Court case of Heck v. Humphrey and requires that before a plaintiff can proceed with a Sec. 1983 claim, their conviction or sentence has to either be reversed on appeal or the actual legal basis or factual validity of their conviction or sentence has to be brought into question. As the 5th Circuit explains the Heck rule, “A Sec. 1983 claim that would invalidate a conviction is barred by Heck.” In other words, a Sec. 1983 claim itself cannot be an attempt to invalidate a conviction or sentence but, instead, be keyed on this specific issue provided. The Court then goes on to apply the Heck rule to the false arrest claim and the excessive force claim, finding that both are barred.

In order to be successful in a false arrest claim, a plaintiff has to show that there was no probable cause for their arrest. The 5th Circuit held that Walter and Shelton’s convictions of resisting arrest and remaining in a place after being forbidden “necessarily implies that there was probable cause for the arrest.” Applying the Heck rule to the false arrest claim, the 5th Circuit held that since successfully winning their false arrest claim would invalidate their conviction for resisting arrest, such a claim was barred under the Heck rule. More clearly, it would be impossible to overturn a wrongful arrest given the fact they had been found guilty of violating the law.

The 5th Circuit also held that the Heck Rule barred Walter and Shelton’s excessive force claim since their “convictions for resisting arrest and their claim of use of excessive force stem from a single interaction.” Similar to the false arrest claim, if Walter and Shelton won their excessive force claim, the validity of their conviction for resisting arrest would be brought into question. This would be barred under the Heck Rule as discussed above.

One final issue the Court had to deal with was the setting aside of Walter and Shelton’s criminal convictions under Article 984 of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure. Article 984 allows a criminal court judge to set aside a misdemeanor criminal conviction (except for criminal neglect of family or stalking) or suspend sentencing upon their discretion. Walter and Shelton argued that the Heck Rule should not apply to their case because their convictions were set aside under Article 984. The 5th Circuit disagreed, stating that “granting relief under Article 984 does not invalidate the conviction or call into question the court’s finding of guilt.” The Court points to statutory language that specifically states that even after a conviction is set aside under Article 984, such a conviction “may be considered as a first offense and provide the basis for subsequent prosecution of the party as a first offender.” The Court analogizes the use of Article 984 to an “act of grace to one convicted of a crime.” The Court finally holds that since setting aside a criminal conviction under Article 984 is not the same as attacking the validity of the conviction itself, the Heck Rule applied and Walter and Shelton’s claims of false arrest and excessive force were barred. The Court concludes by affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Horseshoe Entertainment.

All of these matters are inherently complicated and show that an exact knowledge of the law is necessary from the point of first counsel to the end. While questions of the law must be decided in the court, feeling comfortable with your attorney is important. Legal explanations like the one above should be readily available from your lawyer and can be expected any time you call our firm requesting legal advice.

At the Berniard Law Firm, attorneys can help prepare you to deal with incidents such as these.