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Coleman v. Brown

United States District Court, N.D. California

April 4, 2017

DIANA BECTON BROWN, et al., Defendants.



         I. BACKGROUND

         Rahsaan Coleman, an inmate at the California State Prison - Solano, filed this pro se civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For the reasons discussed below, the action will be dismissed.


         Mr. Coleman believes that his conviction and criminal trial were invalid because two state court judges who presided over his criminal case did not timely file their oaths of office. He has unsuccessfully pursued this theory in numerous court actions and in complaints to the California Commission on Judicial Performance. See Docket No. 1 at 23-24 (listing nine state court actions); see also Docket No. 24 at 2 in Coleman v. McGrath, No. 04-cv-4069 PJH (dismissing the oath-of-office claim from habeas action because it was, at most, a state law error claim). In 2012, Mr. Coleman filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting claims based on his theory. This Court dismissed that action, concluding that the action was barred by the rule from Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). See Docket No. 5 in Coleman v. Brown, No. 12-cv-6291 EMC. He now returns with the same claims and with an additional fact that he contends allows him to avoid the Heck bar.

         In the present action, Mr. Coleman once again claims that his conviction and trial were invalid because two state court judges did not timely file their oaths of office. Mr. Coleman alleges in his complaint that Contra Costa County Municipal Court Judge Becton Brown did not file her oath of office until December 26, 1995, which allegedly was beyond the state law deadline. See Id. at 15-16. Mr. Coleman alleges that former Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Sepulveda did not file her oaths of office until October 31, 1991 and November 26, 1999, which allegedly were beyond the state law deadlines. Id. at 17-18. The complaint suggests these two judges presided over some or all of Mr. Coleman's trial or criminal proceedings. See Id. at 12.[1] He alleges that their “practices, acts and/or policies . . . have caused plaintiff to be wrongly or illegally tried, convicted and sentenced on the basis of excess of jurisdiction.” Docket No. 1 at 7.

         Mr. Coleman has a new fact that he contends will enable him to avoid the Heck bar that prompted the dismissal of Case No. 12-cv-6291 EMC. Specifically, he contends that he “finally obtain[ed] relief from a wrongful sentence” when he was resentenced pursuant to California Penal Code § 1170.12 in 2016. See Docket No. 15 at 2-3 in Coleman v. Brown, Case No. 12-cv-6291 EMC. He further alleges that the minutes and abstracts from the 2016 sentencing proceedings “illuminate that [he] challenged and successfully appeal[]ed his wrongful sentence, and or imprisonment.” Id. at 3.[2]

         Mr. Coleman's resentencing in 2016 was based on a new interpretation of California's Three Strikes law by the California Supreme Court and not because any of his convictions had been overturned. In People v. Vargas, 59 Cal.4th 635 (Cal. 2014), the California Supreme Court announced that a trial court must dismiss one of a defendant's two prior strike convictions if those two convictions were based on the same single act.[3] Relying on the newly-announced rule in Vargas, Mr. Coleman filed a habeas petition in the California Court of Appeal, requesting resentencing. See In re Rahsaan Coleman, Cal.Ct.App. Case No. A147007 (docket sheet available with text of orders at The California Court of Appeal requested input from the respondent, and the respondent agreed that resentencing was appropriate. The appellate court therefore ordered the matter remanded to the trial court for resentencing in light of Vargas. Id. In the trial court, Mr. Coleman was resentenced to a determinate term of 22 years, 4 months. See Docket No. 15 at 24 in Coleman v. Brown, No. 12-cv-6291 EMC (May 20, 2016 amended abstract). This was a substantial reduction from the 59-years-to-life sentence he had initially received upon conviction. It thus appears that he was sentenced as a second-strike defendant rather than as a third-strike defendant under California's Three Strikes law.


         A federal court must engage in a preliminary screening of any case in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). In its review the court must identify any cognizable claims, and dismiss any claims which are frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See Id. at § 1915A(b). Pro se pleadings must be liberally construed. See Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two elements: (1) that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated and (2) that the violation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

         Generally, a plaintiff may not obtain damages in a § 1983 action for alleged constitutional violations in connection with his criminal trial as long as the conviction remains in place. Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), held that a plaintiff cannot bring a civil rights action for damages for a wrongful conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, unless that conviction or sentence already has been determined to be wrongful. See Id. at 486-87. A conviction or sentence may be determined to be wrongful by, for example, being reversed on appeal or being set aside when a state or federal court issues a writ of habeas corpus. See Id. The Heck rule also prevents a person from bringing an action that -- even if it does not directly challenge the conviction or other decision -- would imply that the conviction or other decision was invalid. The practical importance of this rule is that a plaintiff cannot attack his conviction in a civil rights action for damages; the decision must have been successfully attacked before the civil rights action for damages is filed. The Heck rule was first announced with respect to an action for damages, but the Supreme Court has since applied the rule to an action that sought declaratory relief as well as damages. See Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997). If success in the § 1983 action would “necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement or its duration, ' the § 1983 action is barred no matter the relief sought (i.e., damages or equitable relief) as long as the conviction has not been set aside. See Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 82 (2005).

         Mr. Coleman alleges that Defendants violated his rights by causing his conviction in an allegedly unlawful trial - unlawful because Defendants' oaths of office were defective. Although he alleges at one point that his complaint “is not challenging the criminal conviction or sentence, ' he alleges in the next breath that he is “challenging the established state procedure itself which destroyed his rights to a fair trial.” Docket No. 1 at 19. In addition to damages and declaratory relief, he requests that the Court issue an order vacating his sentence and conviction, and order a new trial for him. Id. at 22. Mr. Coleman's claims are squarely within the Heck rule because success on them would call into question the validity of his conviction and sentence from the Contra Costa County Superior Court.

         The resentencing that occurred in 2016 does not remove the Heck bar because Mr. Coleman's conviction was not set aside and there was no retrial. He was resentenced due to a new interpretation of the Three Strikes law in Vargas,59 Cal.4th 635. Neither the new interpretation of the ...

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