Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from December 1, 2023, through December 31, 2023.

Due Process: Wilson v. Midland Cnty., Tex., No. 22-50998, 2023 WL 8642226 (5th Cir. Dec. 14, 2023). In 2001, Erma Wilson was convicted of cocaine possession in Midland County, Texas, after police officers reported finding crack cocaine in her vicinity. She received an eight-year suspended sentence, and her conviction was affirmed on appeal. Decades later, in 2019, it was revealed that Weldon Petty, a long-time assistant district attorney in Midland County, concurrently served as a law clerk for Midland County judges while prosecuting cases in their courts, including over 300 where he had been lead prosecutor. Although Wilson’s case was not directly handled by Petty, she claimed his conflict of interest violated her due process rights and filed § 1983 claims. Her cases were dismissed by the trial court, and Wilson appealed.

Wilson’s appeal faced the challenge of the “favorable termination” rule established in Heck v. Humphrey, necessitating a conviction reversal or sentence invalidation before seeking § 1983 damages. As Wilson’s sentence was already served, habeas relief was not an option. A split among the circuits exists, with some effectively waiving the favorable termination rule when compliance would prove impossible as it would in this case. The Fifth Circuit, however, adheres strictly to this rule even when habeas relief is unattainable, and consequently upheld the dismissal of Wilson’s claims.