In Szajer v. City of Los Angeles, (— F.3d —-, C.A.9 (Cal.), February 11, 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered whether a couple who was convicted of possessing an illegal assault weapon could prevail in a civil action to challenge the legality of the search that uncovered the weapon. The court of appeals held the couple’s civil lawsuit was barred because a finding in their favor would necessarily imply that their conviction was invalid.
Helene and Zoltan Szajer own and operate a gun shop in West Hollywood. A detective for the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) used a confidential informant to take three illegal assault weapons to the Szajers’ gun shop. Zoltan initially offered the informant $1,800 for the weapons but then stated he could not purchase one of the weapons, a submachine gun, because it may be an illegal weapon. Zoltan advised the informant to take the submachine gun to the sheriff’s department. After the informant refused to take the gun to the sheriff’s department, Zoltan offered to take the gun there himself. The Szajers bought the other two weapons and the informant left the submachine gun with the Szajers. As soon as the informant left the shop, Zoltan called the sheriff’s department to request that it send an officer to pick up the submachine gun. While he was on the phone, the detective and several LAPD officers entered the gun shop and detained the Szajers pending the application for a search warrant. The officers detained the Szajers based on their purchase of the two assault rifles and their possession of the submachine gun.
The detective cited three incidents to establish probable cause. The first incident was an interview with Charles Hanks regarding assault weapons that he may have owned. The interview led to the discovery of an assault rifle that was last registered to the Szajers in 1995. The second incident involved a confidential informant’s statement that Zoltan told the informant he had sixteen machine guns hidden under the floor boards of his residence. The third incident involved the undercover operation with the three guns. A magistrate judge signed a warrant which authorized the search of the Szajers’ residence, vacation home, and gun shop. Officers seized assault weapons and computers. The Szajers were charged with thirteen criminal counts, including the possession of an illegal semiautomatic pistol. The Szajers did not contest the validity of the search warrant or seek to suppress the evidence obtained by the officers during the search. Instead, the Szajers each pled no contest to a single count, which was possession of the pistol. The Szajers’ convictions have not been overturned, expunged, or invalidated in any other way.
The Szajers filed a civil action in federal court in which they alleged that the City of Los Angeles (“City”) and its officers violated their civil rights by conducting illegal searches and seizing personal property. The Szajers alleged that the officers were pursuing City’s policy to put all gun stores out of business. They further alleged City was liable because it failed to properly train and supervise its officers. City, the LAPD, and the individual officers moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted judgment in their favor. The trial court found the Szajers’ claims were barred by the holding of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), because “a finding in favor of the Szajers would necessarily imply that their convictions were invalid.”
The court of appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court. In Heck, the United States Supreme Court “held that in order for an individual to recover damages for ‘harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid,’ the conviction or sentence must be called into question in some way — either through direct appeal, expungement, invalidation by a state tribunal, or by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.” The Court explained that if a state prisoner seeks damages in a lawsuit brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a “district court must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his 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.” However, if the court finds “that the plaintiff’s action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of any outstanding criminal judgment against the plaintiff, the action should be allowed to proceed, in the absence of some other bar to the suit.” Therefore, a lawsuit must be dismissed if a finding in favor of the § 1983 plaintiff “would necessarily imply” that his or her conviction or sentence is invalid.
The Szajers asserted there is an exception to the Heck rule that applies when § 1983 claims are based on Fourth Amendment violations due to an illegal search. The court recognized that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had allowed plaintiffs to pursue § 1983 claims based on Fourth Amendment violations even though their criminal convictions were not challenged. The court rejected the Szajers’ argument and held that the decisions of the Seventh Circuit are in direct conflict with Ninth Circuit precedent.
The Szajers also asserted that the Heck decision is not applicable to their case because they only wanted to challenge the search of their gun shop and not their conviction for possession of the unregistered weapon the LAPD found in their home. The court also rejected this argument on the ground that the searches of the gun shop and their residence were based on the same search warrant and supporting evidence.
The Szajers’ § 1983 “civil claims necessarily challenge the validity of the undercover operation and in doing so imply that there was no probable cause to search for weapons.” The court of appeals held that the holding in Heck bars the Szajer’s section 1983 claims for alleged violations of their civil rights.
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