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Douglas v. Reese

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 27, 2018



          Ann Aiken United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, an inmate at Oregon State Penitentiary, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and alleges violations of his constitutional rights arising from defendants' refusal to produce evidence logs during plaintiffs post-conviction proceedings. Defendants move to dismiss on grounds that plaintiffs claims implicate the validity of his criminal convictions and cannot be brought in a § 1983 action. For the reasons explained below, defendant's motion is granted.


         After being convicted of burglary, kidnapping, robbery, felon in possession of a firearm, and unauthorized use of a vehicle, plaintiff was sentenced to 320 months' imprisonment. Plaintiff remains confined pursuant to those convictions.

         In this action, plaintiff alleges that during his state post-conviction proceedings, Multnomah County prosecutor Rees or an unidentified Multnomah County administrator refused to produce chain-of-custody records related to a cap plaintiff allegedly wore during his crimes. Sec. Am. Compl. at 7 (ECF No. II).[1] Plaintiff contends that defendants' refusal to provide the custody records violated his Fourteenth Amendment "Right to Access Evidence" and his First and Fourteenth Amendment right to "Access the Court." Id. at 25-41 (Claims 1-6).[2] Plaintiff seeks damages in the amount of $2, 000, 000.

         The crux of plaintiff s claims is the contention that his cap was physically altered to look like a mask while in State custody during his criminal proceedings. At plaintiffs trial, a law enforcement officer testified that plaintiffs cap had mouth and eye holes cut into it, like a mask, when it was first seized. However, a forensic expert later testified that the cap did not have mouth and eye holes when she examined it, and that she took four smaller cuttings from the cap for DNA analysis. Plaintiff maintains that Rees did not take measures to correct the officer's testimony, knowing that it was incorrect or false.

         During his post-conviction relief (PCR) proceedings in 2013 and 2014, plaintiff sought to obtain the cap and any relevant custody logs "in order to prove several newly discovered evidence claims of prosecutorial misconduct" arising from the alteration of his cap and Rees's failure to disclose the alteration. Sec. Am. Compl. at 6. The State produced custody logs for the the cap until 2002 but it was unable to locate the cap. Eventually, the State informed plaintiffs PCR counsel that the cap likely had been destroyed. Id. at 8.

         Plaintiff alleges that Rees's refusal to produce post-2002 custody logs for the cap prevented plaintiff from establishing a viable Brady claim in his PCR proceedings. See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963) (requiring the disclosure of favorable, material evidence to an accused). Specifically, plaintiff alleges that

defendants['] refusal to give me their true and accurate Chain of Custody Records after 2002 has caused me to suffer actual injury and has prejudiced me because I could not name the state agency and agent who had Custody of my cap when it mysteriously disappeared, therefore, I could not raise any lost or destruction of evidence claims during my 2014 post-conviction trial.

Sec. Am. Compl. at 10. Plaintiff contends that he now needs the custody logs to determine which agency had custody of the cap after his trial to support a potential Brady claim.

         Defendants move for dismissal on grounds that plaintiffs claims necessarily implicate the validity of his convictions and must be dismissed under the Heck doctrine. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). Under Heck and its progeny, "a prisoner in state custody cannot use a § 1983 action to challenge 'the fact or duration of his confinement'" unless the conviction or sentence has been reversed or otherwise invalidated. Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 78 (2005) (citing cases); Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87. More specifically, "a state prisoner's § 1983 action is barred (absent prior invalidation) - no matter the relief sought (damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner's suit (state conduct leading to conviction or internal prison proceedings) - if success in that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement or its duration." Id. at 81-82. Generally, a § 1983 claim under Brady implicates confinement and is subject to the Heck rule. See Skinnder v. Switzer, 131 S.Ct. 1289, 1300 (2011) ("Brady claims have ranked within the traditional core of habeas corpus and outside the province of § 1983."). Defendants maintain that a ruling in plaintiffs favor, based on defendants' failure to disclose favorable evidence under Brady, would necessarily place in question the validity of plaintiff s convictions.

         In response, plaintiff argues that his claims are not barred by Heck because success on his claims "would only guarantee access to evidence the results of which are not known" and he '"would still have to file a separate action in a separate Court to get any relief." Pl.'s Response at 8 (ECF No. 22). Plaintiff emphasizes that he is "arguing that success in my case would only yield access to evidence, (i.e chain of custody records), nothing more." Id. at 8. Plaintiff maintains that he cannot raise a Brady claim against the State for tampering with evidence without access to the custody records to determine what agency or department possessed the cap when it disappeared. Id. at 6. Accordingly, plaintiff files this § 1983 action only to obtain evidence that could enable him to challenge his convictions. Id. at 7-9.[3]

         Plaintiffs claims are premised on his asserted Fourteenth Amendment "right to access evidence." However, the right claimed by plaintiff derives from Brady and the State's duty to disclose "favorable" evidence to a criminal defendant "where the evidence is material" to guilt or innocence. Brady, 373 U.S. at 87. Under Brady, evidence is material "if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A 'reasonable probability' is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 682 (1985).

         If this Court found that plaintiffs constitutional right to "access" Brady evidence had been violated and granted the injunctive relief requested, that finding would necessarily implicate the fact of his convictions. Plaintiff possesses no constitutional right to production of the custody records independent of the right established in Brady. Fox v. Cty. of Tulare, 672 Fed.App'x 767, 768 (9th Cir. 2017) ("The district court correctly concluded that there was no specific procedural due process right to access evidence."); Thames v. Los Angeles Police Dep't, 2008 WL 2641361, at *4 (CD. Cal. June 30, 2008) (finding that plaintiff had no due process right to access police investigative records absent showing that the records were favorable and material under Brady). Thus, in order to grant the injunctive relief requested by plaintiff, I must find that favorable evidence material to plaintiffs guilt or innocence - evidence that likely would have ...

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