Texas Supreme Court holds wrongfully imprisoned man could not bring federal claims after accepting Tim Cole Act funds from Comptroller

Brown v City of Houston, et al., 22-0256 (Tex, February 3, 2023)

In response to a U.S. 5th Circuit certified question, the Texas Supreme Court held that under Texas law, a person wrongfully imprisoned cannot maintain a claim if the person receives administrative compensation for the imprisonment under the Tim Cole Act.

Brown was charged with the capital murder of a Houston police officer and convicted.  He served twelve years on death row but was later released when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated his conviction and the State declined to retry him. Brown applied to the Comptroller for compensation under the Tim Cole Act. The Comptroller denied his petition, finding that Brown’s release was not based on a finding of actual innocence.   Brown then sued the law enforcement officers, city, county, and others involved in his prosecution in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. After receipt of civil discovery information, the DA had a special prosecutor examine the criminal case, who determined Brown could not have been present at the crime scene and that no reasonable juror could find Brown guilty of the murder.  Brown reapplied to the Comptroller, but relief was still denied. The Texas Supreme Court issued a mandamus directing the Comptroller to compensate Brown.  However, Brown continued his federal lawsuit. The Fifth Circuit identified this issue as an important one on which Texas precedent does not directly speak, so it certified the question to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Tim Cole Act provides an administrative process through which claimants who were imprisoned but inexplicitly exonerated later may receive compensation, so as long as they agree “not [to] bring any action involving the same subject matter . . . against any governmental unit or an employee of any governmental unit.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 103.153(b). The argument centered around the term “bring” and whether the term was narrowly applied to “initiating” or was broad enough to encompass “maintaining”.  Importantly, Brown did not receive compensation until after he initiated the federal suit, so the question impacts his ability to maintain the suit. The Court held the that “Tim Cole Act’s administrative process for settling wrongful-imprisonment claims reflects a balancing of policy choices.”  Meanings cannot be determined in isolation but must be drawn from the context in which they are used. The Act , suggests an intent to make the State’s payment of compensation the final word. The Court made a distinction between the weight of legislative history (which can be confusing or even useless at times) and statutory history. Statutory history concerns how the law changed, which can help clarify what the law means. Statutory history does not concern collateral or speculative questions such as the policy goals that motivated individual legislators, the reasons that a given version of a legislative proposal was not adopted, or the like.  The Court traced the statutory history of the Act and applied various statutory construction principles. Ultimately, the Court held Brown’s acceptance of Tim Cole Act compensation means that he has agreed not to “bring” a lawsuit in any forum against governmental entities or employees that involves the same subject matter as his Tim Cole Act claim. “Bringing” an action in this context entails maintaining it.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Young delivered the opinion of the court. The docket sheet can be found here.

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