Allen v. McCurry
Decided on Dec. 9, 1980; 449 US 90

 Man convicted of heroin possession and intent to kill seeks
relief for an alleged 4th Amendment violation


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice, 4th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does state law of collateral estoppel apply in a damages suit against police officers, when the state court had partially rejected the criminal defendant's constitutional claim?


A. Background:

Respondent, McCurry was charged with possession of heroin and assault with intent to kill. At a suppression hearing before trial, the court denied respondent's motion to suppress certain evidence that had been seized by the police. Respondent was then convicted, and the conviction was affirmed on appeal.

Because respondent did not assert during his appeal that the state courts had denied him a full and fair opportunity to litigate his search-and-seizure claim, respondent was barred from seeking a writ of habeas corpus in a federal district court.

However, respondent sought federal court redress for the alleged constitutional violation by bringing a suit for damages against the officers who had seized the evidence in question. The Federal District Court held that collateral estoppel prevented respondent from re-litigating the same 4th Amendment violation that had already been decided in the state courts.  Under collateral estoppel, once a court litigated and determined an issue of fact or law, that issue cannot be re-litigated in a subsequent suit involving a party to the first case.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. The Court of Appeals noted that the suit was respondent's only route to a federal forum for his constitutional claim, and directed the trial court to allow him to proceed unencumbered by collateral estoppel. The petitioner brought the case to the Supreme Court.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side

Jeffrey J. Shank argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

John J. FitzGibbon argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Eugene P. Freeman and Robert H. Dierker, Jr.

C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"Recognition of a clear rule permitting the maintenance of an action for damages on the basis of a claim of unlawful search and seizure which had previously been raised in a prior state criminal proceeding is supported by the decision of this Court in Stone v. Powell and is justified by the special role of constitutionally guaranteed rights in our system of government."

Recognition of such a rule is necessary to provide an adequate mechanism for federal regulation and control of state court enforcement of the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures... such action is highly speculative, exaggerated and of minor significance to a determination of the substantive questions presented... The protection of federal civil rights presents special demands which overshadow the policies of res judicata. A civil action for relief pursuant provides a maximum of deterrence of illegal searches and seizures while imposing a minimum of cost on society at large. The deterrent effect of such litigation, where federal habeas corpus relief is not available, justifies the subordination of res judicata policies in order to enhance the protection of federal civil rights.

That decision properly held that this Court's opinion in Stone v. Powell supports and requires the conclusion that relief in accordance with the Civil Rights Act be permitted to a state prisoner whose federal civil rights have been violated in the search and seizure of evidence subsequently admitted at his criminal trial. This holding comports with the long-standing doctrine that normal principles of res judicata do not apply with full vigor in the context of protection of the constitutional rights of state prisoners. It would create a significant deterrent to unlawful police behavior while minimizing the cost to society of such deterrence." -ACLU brief in Allen v. McCurry

"The court of Appeals erred in refusing to recognize and apply established federal rules of collateral estoppel to respondent's action so as to preclude respondent from relitigation a constitutional claim which had been raised, fully and fairly litigated in a prior state criminal proceeding, notwithstanding the unavailability of federal habeas corpus.

Principles of collateral estoppel have consistently been applied in federal courts, as a Matter of federal law, and are implicit in and consistent with the body of tort law which provides the basis of federal law. The legislative history discloses no intention to interfere with application of neutral and established principles of law by federal courts in dealing with state judgments, or of undermining the concurrent jurisdiction of state courts over federal constitutional questions, so long as the state courts provided adequate opportunities for full and fair litigation of federal claims. The Federal Res Judicata Act, also compels application of collateral estoppel in such actions. Application of federal rules of res judicata and collateral estoppel in such actions cannot properly be conditioned on the availability of federal habeas corpus relief."
-Petitioner's brief in Allen v. McCurry


Opposing Side
Michael A. Wolff filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri as amicus curiae, urging affirmance.
Stephen H. Sachs, Attorney General of Maryland, Emory A. Plitt, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, George P. Agnost, Fred E. Inbau, Wayne W. Schmidt, and James P. Manak filed a brief for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al., as amici curiae urging reversal.

"The Court has eliminated the requirement of mutuality in applying collateral estoppel to bar relitigation of issues decided earlier in federal-court suits, and has allowed a litigant who was not a party to a federal case to use collateral estoppel 'offensively' in a new federal suit against the party who lost on the decided issue in the first case.

But one general limitation the Court has repeatedly recognized is that the concept of collateral estoppel cannot apply when the party against whom the earlier decision is asserted did not have a 'full and fair opportunity' to litigate that issue in the earlier case... [R]es judicata and collateral estoppel not only reduce unnecessary litigation and foster reliance on adjudication, but also promote the comity between state and federal courts that has been recognized as a bulwark of the federal system... [N]othing in the language or legislative history of congressional intent to deny binding effect to a state-court judgment or decision when the state court, acting within its proper jurisdiction, has given the parties a full and fair opportunity to litigate federal claims, and thereby has shown itself willing and able to protect federal rights.

And nothing in the legislative history reveals any purpose to afford less deference to judgments in state criminal proceedings than to those in state civil proceedings. There is, in short, no reason to believe that Congress intended to provide a person claiming a federal right an unrestricted opportunity to relitigate an issue already decided in state court simply because the issue arose in a state proceeding in which he would rather not have been engaged at all.

The Court of Appeals erred in holding that McCurry's inability to obtain federal habeas corpus relief upon his Fourth Amendment claim. Accordingly, the judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded to the Court of Appeals for proceedings consistent with this opinion."

Held: The judgment is reversed and remanded.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Stewart P. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeal in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.