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Third Circuit Questions Bail System While Upholding Dismissal of Lawsuit Alleging Malicious Prosecution

On September 1, 2016, the United States Court of AppeaIs for the Third Circuit affirmed a District Court's order dismissing the lawsuit filed by a man who was jailed for nearly a year on misdemeanor theft charges and was released only after he entered nolo contendere pleas. In upholding the District Court, the Third Circuit cast doubt on the efficacy of a bail system that imprisons defendants based more on their financial situation than their flight risk or danger to society.

Joseph Curry saw a news report in 2012 that he was wanted for a theft at a Wal-Mart store in Lower Macungie Township, Pennsylvania. Knowing he was innocent, Curry called the police who told him he would be jailed and the courts would "figure it out." Curry was arrested on October 29, 2012, and charged with theft by deception and conspiracy. The charges were based on a Wal-Mart security employee identifying Curry. Unable to afford the $20,000 bail, Curry remained in jail. According to Curry's lawsuit, his case was not set to proceed until September 2013 – nearly a year after his arrest.

During his time in jail, Curry lost his job and missed the birth of his first child. Curry was also charged with an unrelated theft in a nearby township. In February 2013, the unrelated charges were dropped, but Curry remained in jail on the original charges. Fearing he would lose his home and motor vehicle next, Curry decided to plead no contest to the charges, at which point he was released and returned home.

A year later Curry filed a lawsuit asserting claims of malicious prosecution, false arrest, and false imprisonment against Wal-Mart and the detectives who filed both the charges he plead to and the ones that were dropped. The District Court determined that Curry's claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), which bars any action seeking damages "if a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of a conviction or sentence," unless that conviction has been vacated. Because Curry plead nolo contendere, which is legally equivalent in Pennsylvania to guilty plea, and that plea was still valid, his claims were barred by Heck.

On appeal, the Third Circuit reluctantly upheld the District Court, but expressed dismay at a bail system which keeps people incarcerated for minor offenses when they pose little or no threat of flight or a danger to the community.

Calling the matter "disturbing," the Third Circuit quoted one report that found that "money, or the lack thereof, is now the most important factor in determining whether someone is held in jail pretrial."

"Those unable to pay who remain in jail may not have the 'luxury' of awaiting trial on the merits of their charges; they are often forced to accept a plea deal to leave the jail environment and be freed," the court wrote.

Noting that Curry was alleged to have stolen only $130 from Wal-Mart, and faced maximum sentence for his misdemeanors of just two years, the court expressed dismay that Curry’s bail was set at $20,000. "Curry’s case appears to expose an unsettling imperfection in our system of justice," the court said. "We hope that (bail reform) efforts will ensure equal justice under the law regardless of an individual's ability to pay."

But as to the merits of Curry's appeal, the court said its hands were tied by Heck's favorable termination rule. "We hold that the District Court properly dismissed Curry's constitutional claims" based on Heck.

Finally, the Third Circuit ruled that Curry claims against the detective who filed the charges that were later dropped were also properly dismissed because Curry was already in jail on the Wal-Mart-charges- thus he was never technically "seized" by that detective. See Curry v. Yachera, et al., No. 15-1692 (3d Cir. Sept. 1, 2016).

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Related legal case

Curry v. Yachera



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