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Delaware Federal Court Examines Civil Claims for Unconstitutional Conviction

Turhan Blenman v. Dover Police Department, et al.
Case No. 16-402-SLR (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, October 12, 2016)

by Richard J. Medoff, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/slr/2016/october/16-402.pdf

Turhan Blenman v. Dover Police Department, et al. involved the United States District Court for the District of Delaware’s screening of an inmate’s civil rights lawsuit against the police officers and other individuals involved in the inmate’s arrest, pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b). The Court concluded that the inmate’s claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). Thus, the Court dismissed the inmate’s complaint as frivolous.

By way of factual background, Plaintiff Turhan Blenman (“Plaintiff”), an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming violations of his constitutional rights arising from his conviction for two (2) felony firearm possession charges. Plaintiff named as Defendants the Dover Police Department (“Dover PD”) and the individual officers, supervisors, and the magistrate allegedly involved in Plaintiff’s arrest (collectively, “Defendants”). Plaintiff sought compensatory damages for his allegedly unconstitutional arrest and conviction. Plaintiff proceeded pro se and had been granted in forma pauperis status.

Plaintiff alleged that on June 11, 2014, two (2) Dover PD detectives, Anthony DiGirolomo and Aaron Dickinson, along with other members of the Dover PD, obtained a search warrant for Plaintiff’s home. Plaintiff alleged that DiGirolomo and Dickinson were the investigators and affiants who authored the probable cause report that supported the warrant, and that “the probable cause report and investigation was not supported by either facts or circumstantial evidence, but by suspicion without proof, and should not have been granted.” He further alleged that, because DiGirolomo and Dickinson never confirmed the allegations by substantiating and authenticating their sworn statements, the search warrant was defective. In addition, Plaintiff alleged that DiGirolomo and Dickinson conspired to authorize the probable cause report under oath or affirmation in violation of his right to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Plaintiff also alleged that the search warrant gave Defendants access to his residence which resulted in “an unreasonable search and seizure and violation of the Fourth Amendment.”  Finally, Plaintiff alleged that the police chief, shift commander, various supervisors, and the magistrate who signed the warrant, either directly or indirectly, “had control in the probable cause report authored and search warrant signed that led to the illegal search and seizure and malicious prosecution” of Plaintiff.

Items seized during the search included heroin at the house and on Plaintiff’s person, a hypodermic needle, bags, business cards, a digital scale, cell phone, and two (2) rifles. Following the search, Plaintiff was arrested and charged with two (2) counts of possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, drug dealing, endangering the welfare of a child, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Plaintiff was indicted on all counts on September 2, 2014, and the case proceeded to a bench trial on June 16, 2015. Before the trial commenced, the State dismissed the drug dealing, endangering the welfare of a child, and possession of drug paraphernalia counts, which Plaintiff alleged was due to lack of evidence. Plaintiff was found guilty of two (2) counts of illegal possession of a firearm. Plaintiff alleged that the trial of the two (2) counts wherein he was found guilty was the result of the defective search warrant and an illegal search and seizure, and sought compensatory damages for his allegedly unconstitutional conviction.

Because Plaintiff proceeded pro se and had been granted in forma pauperis status, the Court began its analysis by noting that “a federal court may properly dismiss an action sua sponte under the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b) if the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” See Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) (in forma pauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant).

Turning to the facts of the case, the Court explained that in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the United States Supreme Court held that:

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.

Id. at 486-87. The Court noted that Heck “prevents a collateral attack on a state criminal conviction by requiring that the state proceedings terminated favorably for the plaintiff.” Id. Plaintiff appeared to assert that the favorable termination requirement was satisfied because three (3) counts of the five (5) count indictment were dismissed prior to the trial wherein he was found guilty of the remaining two (2) felony counts. The Court, however, disagreed. The Court explained that that “the final termination rule announced in Heck barred those § 1983 claims that have the effect of impugning the underlying criminal conviction.” See Marable v. West Pottsgrove Twp., 176 F.App’x 275, 281 (3d Cir. 2006).

Thus, according to the Court, insofar as Plaintiff claimed that Defendants searched his residence with an invalid search warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment and maliciously prosecuted him with respect to the three (3) dismissed charges, the claims were barred by Heck because “Plaintiff’s constitutional claims challenging the three (3) [dismissed] charges would necessarily imply the invalidity of Plaintiff’s convictions on the two (2) felony charges for possession of a firearm by person prohibited.” The Court explained that the firearms possessed by Plaintiff as described in the indictment were seized as a result of the search warrant that Plaintiff now claimed was defective, and thus, that “a finding in this § 1983 case with regard to the search warrant at issue would have a direct impact on the State court’s finding of guilt on the two (2) felony charges.” Therefore, under Heck, the Court concluded that it must “dismiss Plaintiff’s constitutional claims against Defendants until Plaintiff has his sentences and convictions on the felony charges for possession of a firearm by a person prohibited overturned on appeal in the State courts or by filing a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.” For the above reasons, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint as legally frivolous.


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