In Allen v. McCurry, the
Supreme Court held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel applies in §1983
cases. As a result, plaintiffs
in subsequent §1983
suits cannot relitigate issues that were resolved against them in
previous state court proceedings. Allen
was the first in a line of cases that delineated the scope of
collateral estoppel (and the related doctrine of res judicata) under
(For a simplified explanation of collateral
estoppel and res judicata, click
American law generally recognizes a principle
known as collateral estoppel or issue preclusion. Under that
doctrine, a party who has litigated and lost a particular issue in one
case is not permitted to relitigate the same issue in a subsequent case.
One bite at the apple is usually seen as enough. (For a simplified
explanation of collateral estoppel and res judicata, click here.)
are, of course, exceptions to collateral estoppel. For example,
parties should not be precluded from relitigating an issue if they did
not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate that issue in the
first suit. Similarly, collateral estoppel may be inappropriate
due to the legislature's allocation of particular jurisdiction to
sued certain police officers in federal court under
claiming that the officers had unconstitutionally seized certain evidence after
the shootout and arrest described in the
Background Story. However,
McCurry had already litigated the same issue in his state court criminal
trial by filing a motion to suppress the evidence. The state
court had rejected his arguments and McCurry had been convicted.
The defendants in McCurry's
case argued that his federal court claims should be thrown out because
they were barred by collateral estoppel: he had already had his bite at
the apple. McCurry argued that collateral estoppel should not
apply because Congress, by enacting
intended to insure that citizens would have at least one opportunity to
have a federal trial court rule on their federal constitutional
rights. He stressed the legislative history of the act, arguing
that it showed Congressional mistrust of the state courts and its
intention to provide a federal forum for vindication of federal rights.
In an opinion by Justice Stewart, the
Supreme Court rejected McCurry's arguments. The Court held that
prior state court decisions should be given full collateral estoppel
effect in subsequent §1983
cases so long as the state court had given the plaintiff a full and fair
opportunity to be heard.
Justice Blackmun's called
Allen v. McCurry a case
with “ugly facts.”
As apparent from the opinions, Willie
at right) was a violent drug dealer who had little compunction about
shooting two police officers and then suing them.
What is not apparent from the opinions is
the surprisingly unsavory subsequent history of one of those officers,
To put it mildly, Willie McCurry
was an unsympathetic character.
At the time of the incidents that led him to
the Supreme Court, McCurry had more than forty arrests going back
twenty-three years and five convictions, including one conviction for
On April 9, 1977, acting on a tip that
McCurry was selling heroin from his house, two undercover police
officers (accompanied by a concealed team of tactical officers) went to
McCurry’s house to make a buy.
of selling them heroin, McCurry shot and severely wounded the two
After an extended gun battle with the
tactical officers, McCurry surrendered.
He was convicted of possession of heroin and
two counts of assault with intent to kill, and was sentenced to two
consecutive thirty year terms for the assaults and a concurrent ten year
term for possession.
Effectively, this was a life sentence, and
he was not released until a few weeks before his death on September 16,
But McCurry did not
sit idle in prison.
Instead, he sued the two police officer he
had shot (along with several John Doe defendants) for $1,000,000
claiming that they had conspired to violate his fourth amendment rights
and had beaten him after his arrest.
The latter claim was particularly surprising
since the two officers, Marvin Allen and Steven Jacobsmeyer, were lying
on the ground critically wounded at the time of the search and the
As discussed in the
previous column, the Supreme
Court ordered dismissal of most of McCurry’s claims.
However, the Court did remand for a retrial
on the beating claim and a portion of the unlawful search claims.
Not surprisingly, the trial court granted
Officers Jacobsmeyer and Allen directed verdicts on those claims.
Jacobsmeyer, who had filed a counterclaim
against McCurry, was awarded $105,000 for his injuries, but never
collected any part of that judgment.
Jacobsmeyer continued with the St. Louis
police department and eventually retired as a
Allen’s subsequent career as a St. Louis police officer was short and
ended in disgrace.
Two years after the arrest of Willie
McCurry, Allen drove his friend Larry King on an armed robbery spree
during which King used Allen’s service revolver to rob three people and
to exchange shots with a fourth.
The spree began when King, who had already
stolen a car, asked Allen to drive him while he went out to “make some
King told Allen he was going to “rip off” a
couple who were parked in front of a hotel, and proceeded to use Allen’s
service revolver to do so.
They then drove to a restaurant where King
robbed another individual, again using Allen’s service revolver.
(This victim shot at the car as King and
A short time later, King spotted a man
riding a bicycle and told Allen he was going to rob him as well.
Unfortunately for King, the bicyclist was
himself a police officer, John Rice, who was on his way home from work.
Rice fired six shots at King, hitting him
Allen fled the scene, first in the stolen
car and then on foot.
Having emptied his own service revolver,
Rice picked up the one King had been using (i.e., Allen’s service
revolver) and fired several shots at Allen as he fled.
At trial, Allen admitted driving
King throughout the robbery spree, but denied that he had any idea what
King was doing.
Allen also claimed that King used Allen’s
service revolver without his knowledge, but could not explain how that
could have happened.
Officer Allen was convicted of three counts
of armed robbery and one count of attempted robbery, and was sentenced
to twenty years imprisonment.
That conviction was overturned on appeal
because the trial judge had excluded certain evidence of Allen’s
reputation for veracity. The case was remanded for a new trial, and
I have not yet been able to trace what
happened on remand.
This page was revised on November 24, 2015, based on newly
obtained information. It may be revised further based on
additional research.—David Achtenberg