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Allen v. McCurry

Citation. Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 101 S. Ct. 411, 66 L. Ed. 2d 308, 49 U.S.L.W. 4015 (U.S. Dec. 9, 1980)
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Brief Fact Summary

After the issue of illegal search and seizure had been fully adjudicated in his state criminal trial, McCurry (Plaintiff) brought a federal suit seeking damages for the alleged violation of his constitutional rights arising from the alleged illegal search and seizure.

Synopsis of Rule of Law

Collateral estoppel rules apply to prevent an individual from relitigating in a federal suit for violation of constitutional rights those issues he had a “full and fair†opportunity to litigate in a prior state criminal trial against him.


During the trial in which he was convicted of heroin and assault offenses, McCurry (Plaintiff) questioned the constitutionality of the search and seizure that had occurred.  The court denied his suppression motion in part, and he was convicted.  He was not able to seek a federal writ of habeas corpus because he did not allege that the state courts had denied him a “full and fair†opportunity to litigate his search and seizure claim.  Still, he sought federal court redress for the alleged constitutional violation by bringing a damage suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the officers, including Allen (Defendant), who had conducted the search.  The district court held collateral estoppel barred relitigation of the issue.  The court of appeals reversed, concluding that the only route to a federal forum McCurry (Plaintiff) had for his constitutional claim was his 1983 suit.


Can an individual relitigate in a federal suit issues decided against him in a state criminal proceeding in which he had a “full and fair†opportunity to litigate them?


(Stewart, J.)  No.  Section 1983 presents no categorical bar to the application of collateral estoppel concepts, which would in fact prevent one from relitigating in a federal suit alleging a violation of constitutional rights the issues that were decided against him in a state criminal proceeding in which he was given a “full and fair†opportunity to litigate them.  Nothing guarantees that every person asserting a federal right is entitled to one unencumbered opportunity to litigate that right in a federal district court.  Reversed and remanded.


(Blackmun, J.)  A criminal defendant prosecuted in state court is an involuntary litigant in that forum who cannot be forced to choose between foregoing either a potential defense there or a federal forum later.


The question of whether or not a deliberate or unintentional failure to raise the search and seizure issue in the state criminal proceedings would permit it to be raised afterwards in a § 1983 suit was not addressed.  The implication in Restatement Second, Judgments § 133 (Tent. Draft 7, 1980) is that it could be raised as such in a following federal suit.

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