Heck v. Humphrey,
512 U.S. 477 (1994)

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No. 93-6188. Argued April 18, 1994-Decided June 24,1994

While petitioner Heck's direct appeal from an Indiana conviction was pending, he filed this suit under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, seeking damagesbut not injunctive relief or release from custody-on the claim that respondents, acting under color of state law, had engaged in unlawful acts that had led to his arrest and conviction. After the Federal District Court dismissed this action without prejudice, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld Heck's conviction and sentence, and his two petitions for federal habeas relief were rejected. The Court of Appeals then affirmed the dismissal of the § 1983 complaint and approved the District Court's reasoning: If the plaintiff in a federal civil rights action is challenging the legality of his conviction, so that his victory would require his release even if he had not sought that relief, the suit must be classified as a habeas corpus action and dismissed if the plaintiff has failed to exhaust his state remedies.

Held: In order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that 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 called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U. S. C. § 2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S. 475, 494, and Wolffv. McDonnell, 418 U. S. 539, 554, distinguished. The foregoing conclusion follows upon recognition that the common law of torts provides the appropriate starting point for the § 1983 inquiry, see Carey v. Piphus, 435 U. S. 247,257-258; that the tort of malicious prosecution, which provides the closest analogy to claims of the type considered here, requires the allegation and proof of termination of the prior criminal proceeding in favor of the accused, see, e. g., Carpenter v. Nutter, 59 P. 301; and that this Court has long been concerned that judgments be final and consistent and has been disinclined to expand opportunities for collateral attack on criminal convictions, see, e. g., Parke v. Raley, 506 U. S. 20, 29-30. Although the issue in cases such as this is not, therefore, the exhaustion of state remedies,


the dismissal of Heck's § 1983 action was correct because both courts below found that his damages claims challenged the legality of his conviction. Pp.480-490.

997 F.2d 355, affirmed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 490. SOUTER, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 491.

Charles Rothfeld argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

Matthew R. Gutwein argued the cause for respondents.

With him on the brief were Pamela Carter, Attorney General of Indiana, and Arend J. Abel and Dana Childress-Jones, Deputy Attorneys General. *

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a state prisoner may challenge the constitutionality of his conviction in a suit for damages under 42 U. S. C. § 1983.


Petitioner Roy Heck was convicted in Indiana state court of voluntary manslaughter for the killing of Rickie Heck, his wife, and is serving a 15-year sentence in an Indiana prison. While the appeal from his conviction was pending, petitioner,

* A brief of amici curiae was filed for the State of Arizona et al. by Grant Woods, Attorney General of Arizona, Paul J. McMurdie, and Linda L. Knowles, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: James H. Evans of Alabama, Winston Bryant of Arkansas, Daniel E. Lungren of California, Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, Larry EchoHawk of Idaho, Roland W Burris of Illinois, Chris Gorman of Kentucky, Michael C. Moore of Mississippi, Joseph T. Mazurek of Montana, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, Deborah T. Poritz of New Jersey, Lee Fisher of Ohio, T. Travis Medlock of South Carolina, Mark W Barnett of South Dakota, Dan Morales of Texas, Jan Graham of Utah, and Joseph B. Meyer of Wyoming.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

An individual bringing a claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 must base the pursuit of damages for an unconstitutional conviction on the reversal or invalidation of the conviction.


Heck appealed his conviction of voluntary manslaughter in Indiana while bringing a claim against the prosecutors, including Humphrey, under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. He argued that his civil rights had been violated because the prosecutors had destroyed exculpatory evidence in his case. The lower court refused to hear the case because it ruled that it raised issues that were directly related to Heck's incarceration. During the appeal of the civil rights action, Heck lost his appeals of his conviction in state and federal courts. The Seventh Circuit ruled that his civil rights case should be dismissed, since it is essentially challenged the validity of his conviction.



  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Litigation by prisoners in federal court tends to be based on Section 1983 or the Habeas Corpus Statute, which are intended to provide remedies for unconstitutional treatment by state officials. While Section 1983 does not require exhausting state remedies, habeas petitions do. Although habeas proceedings are generally the only way for prisoners to challenge their confinement, the money damages that were sought in this Section 1983 claim could not have been pursued through habeas proceedings. Rather than adding an exhaustion requirement to Section 1983, certain types of claims should be recognized as categorically impermissible under it. As with actions based on malicious prosecution, the prisoner must be able to show that the conviction has been invalidated, even if all state remedies have been exhausted.


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)

The conflict between Section 1983 claims and habeas proceedings has been caused by overly generous judicial interpretations of both statutes, so it is appropriate to narrow their scope.


  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

A malicious prosecution cause of action should not necessarily be the standard for determining the elements of a Section 1983 claim. However, challenging a conviction under Section 1983 improperly frustrates the intentions of Congress in creating this provision. This decision should be limited to criminal defendants who are in custody, since the dissonance with the habeas rule does not exist for people who are not in custody, and they should not be subject to the requirements provided here.

Case Commentary

The Court did not reach the issue of how the doctrine of res judicata will intersect with these types of Section 1983 claims, which makes the impact of this decision difficult to discern.

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