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By Mark Wilson

On July 31, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals joined the Seventh Circuit in holding that the Heck doctrine does not bar all parole condition challenges brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

California’s Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act of 2006 – also known as Jessica’s Law or Proposition 83 – prohibits registered sex offenders from residing “within 2,000 feet of any public or private school, or park where children regularly gather.” Parolees convicted of a “registerable sex offense” must also submit to GPS monitoring for the duration of their parole or sometimes for life.

In 2011, a California state court determined that the residency restriction imposed an unconstitutional “blanket” parole condition on all registered sex offenders. See: In re Taylor, 147 Cal. Rptr.3d 64 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2012). Blanket enforcement of the residency restriction was prohibited, but Taylor permitted a similar individualized ban.

In 2006, William Cecil Thornton was convicted of a theft charge in California and sentenced to 16 months in prison. He was released on a three-year parole term in June 2008. Due to a prior Tennessee sex offense, Thornton was required to submit to California’s residency restriction and GPS monitoring as conditions of his parole.

Thornton filed suit in federal court under § 1983, challenging the residency restriction and GPS conditions; he sought damages and injunctive relief.

The district court dismissed the case for failure to state a claim pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(6). The court held that Thornton’s claims were barred by Eleventh Amendment, absolute and qualified immunity, and that federal habeas corpus was his exclusive remedy under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) [PLN, Sept. 1994, p.12].

The Ninth Circuit reversed, first holding that Thornton’s official capacity injunctive relief claims were not barred by the Eleventh Amendment or absolute or qualified immunity.

The parole officers were entitled to absolute immunity on Thornton’s damage claims for imposing unconstitutional parole conditions, the Court of Appeals held. However, qualified rather than absolute immunity extended to his damage claim that parole officers enforced the conditions in “an unconstitutionally arbitrary or discriminatory manner.”

Turning to the Heck doctrine, the Ninth Circuit noted that neither it nor the Supreme Court had previously “addressed whether, or in what circumstances,” parole condition challenges may be brought under § 1983.

Observing that only the Seventh Circuit had addressed the issue, the appellate court followed the reasoning of Drollinger v. Milligan, 552 F.2d 1220 (7th Cir. 1977) and Williams v. Wisconsin, 336 F.3d 576 (7th Cir. 2003) in holding “that a state parolee may challenge a condition of parole under § 1983 if his or her claim, if successful, would neither result in speedier release from parole nor imply, either directly or indirectly, the invalidity of the criminal judgments underlying that parole term.” As Thornton met those conditions, the case was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. See: Thornton v. Brown, 724 F.3d 1255 (9th Cir. 2013).

The appellate ruling was amended and republished on February 18, 2014, though the outcome remained the same. See: Thornton v. Brown, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 3037 (9th Cir. 2014).

(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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