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Starks v. City of Waukegan

February 4, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge David H. Coar


Plaintiff, Bennie Starks ("Plaintiff" or "Starks") brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants maliciously prosecuted him and deprived him of his right to a fair trial, resulting in his conviction for a crime that he did not commit. Presently before this Court are four motions: motions to dismiss by (1) the City of Waukegan, (2) Drs. Carl Hagstrom and Russell Schneider, and (3) former Waukegan Police Department officials Lieutenant Urbancic, W. Biang, P. Stevenson, M. Juarez and D. Deprez; and (4) a motion for summary judgment by Sharon Thomas-Boyd. For the reasons stated below, this matter is stayed pending the resolution of Starks's state court criminal proceedings.


On January 19, 1986, a woman reported to the Waukegan police that she had been dragged into a ravine, beaten, and raped by an unknown attacker. Shortly thereafter, Bennie Starks was arrested for that crime. He was subsequently convicted at the conclusion of a jury trial and sentenced to 60 years' imprisonment. Starks's conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal. Although Starks continued to fight his conviction while imprisoned, it was not until post-conviction proceedings that DNA testing excluded Starks as the source of the semen found in the victim's body and on her clothing. On March 23, 2006, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the denial of Starks's post-conviction petition and vacated his convictions for aggravated criminal sexual assault and attempted aggravated criminal sexual assault. Curiously, however, the Appellate Court did not address Starks's outstanding conviction for aggravated battery even though Starks's defense was that he was wrongly identified. Starks claims that his criminal defense counsel are continuing their efforts to have his aggravated battery conviction vacated. In any event, Starks was released from prison on bond on October 4, 2006, and the Illinois Appellate Court issued a formal mandate reversing Starks's sexual assault convictions on January 20, 2007. Starks currently awaits retrial on the charges underlying these convictions. His trial is scheduled for March 2010.

After serving 20 years in prison for a crime he claims he did not commit, Starks brings the instant § 1983 action seeking damages related to his alleged wrongful conviction and imprisonment. On January 20, 2009, Starks filed a four-count complaint against the City of Waukegan, five Waukegan police officers, and three experts who testified at his trial (collectively, "Defendants"). The gravamen of Starks's complaint is that Defendants committed various acts of misconduct that deprived him of his right to a fair trial and resulted in his wrongful conviction. Specifically, Starks alleges that Defendant police officers induced the victim to identify him through a suggestive photo show, prepared police reports falsely stating that Starks had made several inculpatory statements during his interview with police, and neither documented nor informed prosecutors of their knowledge that the victim's identification of Starks as her attacker was unreliable. Furthermore, Starks claims that Defendant police officers suggested to the victim that Starks was the person who had attacked her and contributed significant aspects to her story in order to match other evidence in the case and undermine Starks's alibi.

Starks also claims that Defendants Dr. Carl Hagstrom and Dr. Russell Schneider, experts in forensic dentistry, falsely reported to prosecutors that a bite mark on the victim had been made by Starks even though they knew that they did not possess information sufficient to produce a reliable report. According to Starks, Defendant Sharon Thomas-Boyd, a serological expert, concealed results of testing that excluded Starks as the source of semen recovered from the victim and her clothing. Starks complains that Defendant Juarez testified falsely before the Grand Jury, and Defendants Juarez, Biang, Deprez, Hagstrom, Schneider, and Thomas-Boyd testified falsely at his trial.

Count I of Starks's complaint, brought against all eight Defendants under § 1983, alleges that the individual Defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit various acts of misconduct that deprived him of his right to a fair trial and led to his wrongful conviction. Under Count II, brought against all Defendants pursuant to § 1983, Starks alleges that Defendants maliciously prosecuted him. Count III asserts a Monell policy claim against the City of Waukegan. Count IV asserts an indemnification claim against the City of Waukegan pursuant to the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, 745 ILCS 10/9-102.


As an initial matter, the parties offer several positions regarding the timeliness of this lawsuit. They argue, at once, that this lawsuit is too early, too late, and on time. After considering the parties' various positions, the Court finds that this lawsuit is premature. As Starks remains convicted of aggravated battery and awaits trial on pending charges of aggravated criminal sexual assault and attempted aggravated criminal sexual assault, no cause of action pursuant to § 1983 has yet accrued. The Court therefore stays this matter pending the resolution of Starks's state court criminal proceedings.

The centerpiece of Starks's complaint is his § 1983 claim that Defendants engaged in various acts of misconduct that ultimately deprived him of his right to a fair trial. The question is when Starks's § 1983 claim accrued. While Illinois state law teaches that the length of the statute of limitations for personal injury claims brought under § 1983 is two years, the Court must look to federal law to determine when a § 1983 cause of action accrues. Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 387-88 (2007). In Heck v. Humphrey, which controls this question here, the United States Supreme Court held:

[I]n 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. 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994) (footnotes omitted). The Court's decision aimed to avoid conflicting resolutions of the same issue and expanding opportunities for collateral attack through the improper use of civil tort actions to challenge outstanding criminal convictions. Id. at 484-86. To guard against these possibilities, the Court instructed that:

[W]hen a state prisoner seeks damages in a § 1983 suit, the district court must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence; if it would, the complaint must be dismissed unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or sentence has already been invalidated.

Id. at 487. In Wallace v. Kato, the Supreme Court injected some confusion into the Heck analysis by holding that Fourth Amendment claims for false imprisonment accrue at the time an individual is brought before a magistrate and bound over for trial. 549 U.S. at 391. However, reconciling the accrual rules of Heck and Wallace, the Seventh Circuit held that Wallace "deals with the accrual date of a § 1983 claim for false imprisonment . . . A Brady claim, on the other hand, is not controlled by Wallace but rather by Heck v. Humphrey." Johnson v. Dossey, 515 F.3d 778 (7th Cir. 2008); see also Newsome v. McCabe, 256 F.3d 747, 752 (7th Cir. 2001) (Brady claim was subject to accrual rule announced in Heck); Gordon v. Devine, No. 08 C 377, 2008 WL 4594354, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 14, 2008) ("Due Process claims regarding a plaintiff's right to a fair trial and exculpatory information pursuant to Brady necessarily raise questions about the validity of a conviction, and thus, are postponed under Heck.").

To escape the reach of binding Seventh Circuit precedent, some of the Defendants contend that Starks's claim is not properly characterized as a Brady claim, and it is therefore subject to the accrual rule of Wallace rather than Heck. To support their argument, these Defendants point out that the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Starks's sexual assault convictions based on exculpatory DNA evidence that emerged during post-conviction proceedings. Since "'Brady identifies a trial right,' particularly because it mandates the disclosure only of evidence that 'is material either to guilt or to punishment,'" evidence not in existence at the time of trial cannot support a Brady claim. Johnson v. Garza, 564 F.Supp.2d. 845, 854 (N.D. Ill. 2008) (quoting Newsome,256 F.3d at ...

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