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Surles v. Lee County Circuit Courts

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

July 9, 2018

ALTON LEVON SURLES, Plaintiff,
v.
LEE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURTS, et ah, Defendants.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Alton Surles, an inmate incarcerated at the Lee County Detention Center in Opelika, Alabama, files this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging a violation of his constitutional rights regarding his criminal proceedings before the Circuit Court for Lee County, Alabama. Surles requests injunctive relief and names as defendants the Lee County Circuit Courts, District Attorney Brandon Hughes, Detective Nicholas Helms, attorney Andrew Stanley, and Assistant District Attorney Jessica Ventiere. Upon review, the court concludes this case is due to be summarily dismissed prior to service of process under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).[1]

         I. DISCUSSION

         A. Lee County Circuit Court

         Surles names the Lee County Circuit Court as a defendant, but courts are not persons within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Moity v. La. St. Bar Assoc, 414 F.Supp. 180, 182 (E.D. La. 1976), aff'd, 537 F.2d 1141 (5th Cir. 1976). The dismissal of Surles' complaint against the Lee County Circuit Court is therefore appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § l9l5(e)(2)(B)(i).

         B. The State Prosecutors

         "[A] prosecutor is entitled to absolute immunity for all actions he takes while performing his function as an advocate for the government." Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273 (1993); Jones v. Cannon, 174 F.3d 1271, 1281 (11th Cir. 1999) ("A prosecutor enjoys absolute immunity from allegations stemming from the prosecutor's function as advocate."); Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 555 U.S. 335, 342 (2009) (holding that, in a § 1983 action, "the immunity that the law grants prosecutors [for actions intimately associated with initiation, prosecution and punishment in a criminal case] is 'absolute'"); Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 420 (1976) ("[A] prosecutor enjoys absolute immunity from § 1983 suits for damages when he acts within the scope of his prosecutorial duties."); Rowe v. Fort Lauderdale, 279 F.3d 1271, 1279 (11th Cir. 2002) ("A prosecutor is entitled to absolute immunity for all actions he takes while performing his function as an advocate for the government."). The absolute immunity afforded prosecutors protects against "impair[ing] the performance of a central actor in the judicial process." Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 343 (1986). Absolute immunity from § 1983 liability is afforded to all conduct of a prosecutor that is "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process," which includes representing the State's interests during the sentencing phase of a criminal case. Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 486 (1991) (quoting Imbler, 424 U.S. at 430-31). Further, this immunity is applicable even where the prosecutor acts "maliciously, unreasonably, without probable cause, or even on the basis of false testimony or evidence." Henry v. Farmer City St. Bank, 808 F.2d 1228, 1238 (7th Cir. 1986); accord Prince v. Wallace, 568 F.2d 1176, 1178-79 (5th Cir. 1978).

         Surles' challenge to the actions of District Attorney Hughes and Assistant District Attorney Ventiere in initiating and prosecuting criminal charges against him arise from these defendants' roles "as [] 'advocate[s]' for the state," and these actions are "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." Mastroianni v. Bowers, 60 F.3d 671, 676 (11th Cir. 1998) (citations omitted). For this reason, Defendants Hughes and Ventiere are entitled to absolute immunity from damages for this conduct. Buckley, 509 U.S. at 273; Burns, 500 U.S. at 493. Further, Surles is entitled to no declaratory or injunctive relief in this § 1983 complaint for any adverse action taken during the state-court proceedings related to his criminal proceedings before the Circuit Court for Lee County, Alabama. See Dist of Columbia Ct. of App. v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 486-87 (1983); Newman v. Alabama, 683 F.2d 1312 (11th Cir. 1982). Surles' claims against these defendants are due to be dismissed under 28 U.S.C. § l9l5(e)(2)(B)(i).

         C. Defendant Andrew Stanley, Esq.

         Surles brings suit against his attorney, Andrew Stanley, challenging counsel's performance regarding matters arising from Surles' criminal proceedings before the Circuit Court for Lee County. However, an essential element of a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action is that a person acting under color of state law committed the constitutional violation about which the plaintiff complains. Am. Manuf. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40 (1999); Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981); Willis v. Univ. Health Servs., Inc., 993 F.2d 837, 840 (11th Cir. 1993). Lo state a viable claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must assert "both an alleged constitutional deprivation . . . and that 'the party charged with the deprivation [is] a person who may fairly be said to be a state actor.'" Am. Manuf., 526 U.S. at 50. An attorney who represents a defendant in criminal proceedings does not act under color of state law. Polk Cnty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312 (1981); Mills v. Crim. Dist. Ct. No. 3, 837 F.2d 677, 679 (5th Cir. 1988) ("[P]rivate attorneys, even court-appointed attorneys, are not official state actors and ... are not subject to suit under section 1983."). The complaint against Stanley is due to be dismissed under 28 U.S.C. § l9l5(e)(2)(B)(i). Neitzke, 490 U.S. 319, 327(1989).

         D. The Pending Charges

         To the extent Surles seeks the dismissal of criminal charges pending against him, this court must refrain from issuing that relief. In Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), the Supreme Court held that federal courts should abstain from entertaining civil actions by individuals seeking to enjoin criminal prosecutions against them in state court. Id. at 44-45. "Attentive to the principles of equity, comity, and federalism, the Supreme Court has recognized that federal courts should abstain from exercising jurisdiction in suits aimed at restraining pending state criminal prosecutions." Jackson v. Georgia, 273 Fed.Appx. 812, 813 (11th Cir. 2008) (citing Younger, 401 U.S. at 37). Younger, therefore, directs federal courts to abstain from granting injunctive or declaratory relief that would interfere with ongoing state criminal proceedings except under limited circumstances. Younger, 401 U.S. at 43-45. The Younger abstention doctrine is premised upon a fundamental "public policy against federal interference with state criminal prosecutions." Id. at 43.

         "In order to decide whether the federal proceeding would interfere with the state proceeding, [the court] look[s] to the relief requested and the effect it would have on the state proceedings. The relief sought need not directly interfere with an ongoing proceeding or terminate an ongoing proceeding in order for Younger abstention to be required." 31 Foster Children v. Bush, 329 F.3d 1255, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). Abstention is required under Younger when a state judicial proceeding is pending, the proceedings implicate important state interests, and the state proceedings provide an adequate opportunity to raise constitutional challenges. Middlesex Cnty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden St. Bar Assoc, 457 U.S. 423, 431 (1982); 31 Foster Children, 329 F.3d at 1274.

         Each of the elements for Younger abstention is present here. First, Surles is awaiting trial on criminal charges before the Circuit Court of Lee County, Alabama. Second, enforcement of the law is an important state interest. Finally, Surles may raise his claims in the pending state-court proceedings by filing appropriate motions with the trial court and, if unsuccessful on these motions, by petitioning the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals for review of any adverse decision. In addition, if Surles is convicted of the offenses lodged against him, he may present his claims on direct appeal before the state appellate courts or in a state post-conviction petition pursuant to Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure. Although exceptions to Younger abstention are permitted where (1) irreparable injury because of the prosecution is both "great and immediate"; (2) the state law flagrantly and patently violates the Constitution of the United States; (3) there is a showing of bad faith or harassment; or (4) other unusual circumstances exist that require issuance of the requested relief, Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 230 (1972), Surles presents no credible basis for invoking these exceptions. The mere fact that Surles must defend himself in state criminal proceedings does not demonstrate irreparable harm. Younger, 401 U.S. at 46 ("[T]he cost, anxiety, and inconvenience of having to defend against. . . criminal prosecution, [is not] considered 'irreparable' in the special legal sense of that term."). Surles' conclusory allegations of insufficient evidence to arrest ...


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