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Griffin v. State

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northwestern Division

January 26, 2017

KENNETH RAY GRIFFIN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
THE STATE OF ALABAMA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In 2007, an Alabama jury convicted plaintiff Kenneth Ray Griffin, Jr. of a violation of Alabama Code § 13A-12-192(b). Section 13A-12-192(b) prohibits the knowing possession of “obscene matter that contains a visual depiction of a person under the age of 17 years engaged in an[] act of sado-masochistic abuse, sexual intercourse, sexual excitement, masturbation, genital nudity, or other sexual conduct.” Ala. Code § 13A-12-192(b). In this § 1983 action, Mr. Griffin argues that Alabama Code § 13A-12-192(b) is overly broad and violates the First Amendment because § 13A-12-192(b) prohibits not only the possession of prohibited images of minors but also the possession of obscene depictions of adults. Mr. Griffin asks the Court to declare the statute unconstitutional. (Docs. 13, 15; see also Doc. 30). Pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), the State of Alabama, one of the defendants in this case, asks the Court to dismiss Mr. Griffin's amended complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (Doc. 17, p. 1). For the reasons stated below, the Court grants the motion to dismiss.

         A. Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1)

         Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, lower federal courts may not entertain federal claims that amount to appeals of final state-court judgments. Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 463 (2006) (a plaintiff who wishes to appeal a state-court judgment must do so in the United States Supreme Court). The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is narrow, intended to apply only to “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Id. at 464. The State of Alabama argues that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prohibits the Court from exercising jurisdiction over Mr. Griffin's claims because Mr. Griffin's amended complaint “is the functional equivalent of an appeal . . . from his state-court criminal judgment.” (Doc. 17, p. 2). The Court disagrees.

         Although “a state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts, . . . a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 532 (2011). Here, Mr. Griffin does not attempt to appeal his criminal conviction. Instead, he challenges the constitutional validity of § 13A-12-192(b), the statute that governs his conviction. Under Skinner, Mr. Griffin is free to do so. Id. at 532 (finding “no lack of subject-matter jurisdiction” over a plaintiff's challenge to the constitutionality of the criminal statute under which he had been convicted); see also D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 487 (1983) (finding jurisdiction where “[t]he respondents' claims . . . d[id] not require review of a judicial decision in a particular case[, ]” but instead involved a general constitutional attack). Accordingly, the Court denies the State of Alabama's Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss Mr. Griffin's amended complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. (Doc. 17, pp. 2-4).

         B. Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6)

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a defendant may move to dismiss a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The Court accepts the plaintiff's allegations as true when considering a defendant's motion to dismiss a complaint and asks whether the plaintiff alleges facts that allow the Court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); see Maledy v. City of Enter., 2012 WL 1028176, at *1 (M.D. Ala. March 26, 2012). A complaint that alleges such facts is “‘plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Because Mr. Griffin is representing himself in this action, the Court liberally construes his amended complaint and holds the amended complaint to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by an attorney. Hughes v. Lott, 350 F.3d 1157, 1160 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998)).

         The State of Alabama argues that, even liberally construed, Mr. Griffin's amended complaint fails to state a claim for relief under Rule 12(b)(6) because Mr. Griffin's claims are barred by the doctrine of claim preclusion and Mr. Griffin's claims are implausible on the merits. (Doc. 17, pp. 4-10). The Court examines each argument in turn.

         1. Claim preclusion

         “Because the prior judgment at issue was an Alabama-court judgment, this court must apply Alabama's law of preclusion.” Sophocleus v. Ala. Dep't of Transp., 605 F.Supp.2d 1209, 1218 (M.D. Ala. 2009); see also N.A.A.C.P. v. Hunt, 891 F.2d 1555, 1560 (11th Cir. 1990) (“Federal courts apply the law of the state in which they sit with respect to the doctrine of res judicata.”). Under Alabama claim-preclusion law, a subsequent suit is barred if there was “(1) a prior judgment on the merits, (2) rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, (3) with substantial identity of the parties, and (4) with the same cause of action presented in both suits.” Sophocleus, 605 F.Supp.2d at 1218-19 (quoting N.A.A.C.P., 891 F.2d at 1560) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). If these elements are met, then “any claim that was or could have been adjudicated in the previous action is precluded.” N.A.A.C.P., 891 F.2d at 1560. Mr. Griffin's claims are not precluded because his federal claims and his state criminal conviction do not present the same cause of action.

         Causes of action are the same if they “arise out of the same nucleus of operative fact.” Sophocleus, 605 F.Supp.2d at 1219; see also Baloco v. Drummond Co., Inc., 767 F.3d 1229, 1247 (11th Cir. 2014). In determining whether the same cause of action is presented in separate lawsuits, courts compare “‘the factual issues that must be resolved in the second suit . . . with the issues explored in the first case.'” Sophocleus, 605 F.Supp.2d at 1219 (quoting Pleming v. Universal-Rundle Corp., 142 F.3d 1354, 1356 (11th Cir. 1998)). In Mr. Griffin's criminal proceeding, the facts at issue concerned whether Mr. Griffin knowingly possessed the type of obscene material prohibited by § 13A-12-192(b). The state court did not explore issues related to the constitutionality of § 13A-12-192(b). In the instant action, the Court need not resolve factual issues related to whether Mr. Griffin knowingly possessed obscene material. Instead, the Court is concerned only with whether § 13A-12-192(b) places an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. Because the facts germane to that analysis do not share a common nucleus with those underlying Mr. Griffin's conviction, Mr. Griffin does not assert the same cause of action here as that adjudicated in state criminal court, and the doctrine of claim preclusion does not bar his constitutional challenge. See Baloco, 767 F.3d at 1246-47; Sophocleus, 605 F.Supp.2d at 1219.

         2. Merits

         Section 13A-12-192(b) provides that “[a]ny person who knowingly possesses any obscene matter that contains a visual depiction of a person under the age of 17 years engaged in any act of sado-masochistic abuse, sexual intercourse, sexual excitement, masturbation, genital nudity, or other sexual conduct shall be guilty of a class C felony.” Ala. Code § 13A-12-192(b). Mr. Griffin argues that § 13A-12-192(b) is unconstitutionally overbroad because, in addition to prohibiting the possession of child pornography, it prohibits the possession of obscene depictions of 16-year-olds, whom Mr. Griffin contends are adults under Alabama law. (Doc. 30, pp. 8, 12-13). Mr. Griffin also argues that § 13A-12-192(b) is unconstitutionally vague because its reference to persons “under the age of 17 years” makes it unclear whether the statute prohibits the possession of obscenity or child pornography. (Doc. 30, pp. 8-9). The State of Alabama argues that Mr. Griffin has failed to state a plausible claim for relief. (Doc. 17, pp. 6-10).

         Mr. Griffin correctly notes that there is a distinction between obscenity and child pornography. The United States Supreme Court has held that a state may not criminalize the mere possession of obscene material, but it may criminalize the possession of child pornography. Compare Osborne v. Ohio, 495 U.S. 103, 108, 111 (1990) (“[W]e find that Ohio may constitutionally proscribe the possession and viewing of child pornography.”), with Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 568 (1969) (“We hold that the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit making mere private possession of obscene material a crime.”). In Osborne, the Supreme Court explained that there are compelling interests not present in the context of ...


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