U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Photo: Michael A. Scarcella/ALM

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has overturned a $2 million civil rights award an “actually innocent” plaintiff won against Texas police officers for hiding exculpatory evidence in his criminal case because he pleaded guilty to assault on a public servant.

The background to Alvarez v. City of Brownsville is as follows, according to the Fifth Circuit’s recent decision.

George Alvarez was detained in a holding cell of the Brownsville Police Department Jail when a detention officer pressed charges against him for assault. He pleaded guilty and received a suspended eight-year sentence.

Several years later, videos of the altercation between Alvarez and the detention officer surfaced in a separate civil rights case filed against the City of Brownsville and its police department. Alavarez successfully challenged his criminal conviction and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would later declare that he was “actually innocent” of assaulting the detention guard.

Alvarez ultimately sued the City of Brownsville and several of its police officers in a § 1983 civil rights case alleging fabrication of evidence and nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence under the Brady doctrine. And a Southern District of Texas jury later awarded Alvarez $2 million in damages—a decision the defendants appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

But in his June 26 decision, Fifth Circuit Senior Judge Jacques Wiener reversed and rendered the jury’s award after determining that Alvarez’s guilty plea precluded him from asserting a Brady claim in the civil rights case.

In his analysis, Wiener noted that collaterally attacking the voluntariness of a guilty plea in a criminal case on an alleged Brady violation is different from seeking civil damages for failing to disclose evidence.

“Alvarez is not attacking the validity of his plea to get his conviction overturned: Rather—now that his conviction has been overturned—Alvarez is raising a Brady claim to hold the city liable for damages under § 1983 for withholding Brady material,” Wiener explained.

To prevail on his § 1983 claim, Alvarez had to first show a violation of the constitution.

“Alvarez did not have a constitutional right to impeachment evidence when he pleaded guilty,” Wiener wrote. “Accordingly, Alvarez’s guilty plea precludes him from asserting Brady claim under § 1983.”