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Second Circuit Holds Confidential Informant's Reliability Alone Insufficient to Support Hearsay or Conclusionary Statements

Second Circuit Holds Confidential Informant's Reliability Alone
Insufficient to Support Hearsay or Conclusionary Statements

By David M. Reutter

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has held that prison officials, in assessing the reliability of evidence at a prisoner's disciplinary hearing, must reference the totality of the circumstances and that an informant's record for reliability cannot, by itself, establish the reliability of bald conclusions or third-party hearsay. The court, however, held this issue was not clearly established and prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity.

This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action was filed by New York prisoner Rubin Sira, alleging events that transpired at Green Haven Correctional Facility (GHCF) in 2000. That complaint alleged prison officials violated Sira's due process rights by finding him guilty (1) based upon insufficient evidence, (2) without providing him adequate notice of the charges, (3) without affording access to confidential evidence relevant to his defense, (4) without assessing the reliability of various confidential sources of incriminating information, and (5) without disclosing the confidential documentary evidence against him. Prison officials denied the allegations, moving for judgment on the pleadings based on qualified immunity. The Southern District of New York denied the motion after converting it to a summary judgment motion. The defendants appealed.

While at (GHCF) on January 19, 2000, Sira was served with a misbehavior report written that day. The report charged Sira with violating prison rules that prohibit making any threat, spoken, in writing, or by gesture" and that prohibit prisoners from leading, organizing, participating, as urging other prisoners to participate in work stoppages, sit-ins, lock-ins, or other action that may be detrimental to the order of the prison. To support the charges, the report stated that during an investigation into a planned prison demonstration that prisoners were to conduct on January 1, 2000, Sira was identified by confidential sources as urging prisoners to conduct a work/program stoppage. Sira was alleged to have been an organizer and threatened prisoners to participate. To avert the Y2K strike," prison officials locked down GHCF from December 24, 1999, to January 6, 2000. Once the lock down ended, a strike did in fact occur.

At his disciplinary hearing on January 26, Sira pled not guilty, requesting dismissal because the report failed to (1) identify any person whom he had threatened or organized; (2) indicate where in (GHCF) the alleged misconduct had occurred; and (3) provide clear notice of the date of his alleged conduct, since the incident date on the report was marked January 19, while the body of facts suggested the strike possibly occurred before January 1. The hearing officer, Captain Robert Morton, denied Sira's dismissal request, and he continued on with the hearing, which spanned over several different days.

Lieutenant G. Schneider testified, in Sira's presence, that Sira, according to confidential informants, was the captain" of C Block" and he would enforce the Y2K strike in that capacity. Based on Schneider's testimony, Morton found Sira's misconduct report provided adequate notice of the date and time of misconduct. Morton then moved to confidential proceedings outside Sira's presence. Three guards then testified about information they had received from five informants who implicated Sira in the Y2K strike. Once the confidential proceedings concluded, Sira requested to know the substance of the information the informants provided without identifying them. Morton refused to provide the information. Morton, based on the guards' testimony and the confidential information, found Sira guilty of participating in the charged demonstration, but found him not guilty of making threats. Sira was sentenced to six months in a Special Housing Unit. Sira's initial administrative appeal was denied, but with the assistance of counsel he obtained a reconsideration that concluded the confidential evidence failed to support [the] charge." By that time, Sira's SHU sentence had expired.

In analyzing Sira's inadequate notice of charger claim, the Second Circuit found the misconduct report fails to (1) identify prisoners Sira's misconduct was directed at (2) describe words, actions, or the means Sira employed to further the strike, (3) mention sites within (GHCF) where Sira engaged in the charged conduct, and (4) the incident date of January 19, is misleading. The court held that when a prisoner is provided with no specific facts relating to conclusionary charges that he violated prison rules prohibiting prisoners from urging or threatening others to cause prison disruptions, he has no more ability to identify the conduct at issue and to muster a defense than if he had been given no notice at all.

The court further held that prison officials are not entitled to qualified immunity on the notice claim, for it has long been established that due process requires a modicum of factual specificity. Accordingly, the District Court properly denied prison officials qualified immunity on this claim. The Second Circuit then turned to Sira's claim related to the failure to disclose the evidence relied on to support the disciplinary ruling. A prisoner has a right to know the evidence upon which a disciplinary ruling is based. That right, however, is not absolute. When the disclosure of such evidence creates a risk of violence or intimidation directed at either inmates or staff," a hearing officer may properly decline to inform a prisoner of the adverse evidence. The court found that there is no evidence in the record to suggest the disclosure of the substance of the informant's statements to Sira would have presented safety risks. While subsequent proceedings may change this, qualified immunity was also properly denied on this claim. To determine if the evidence was sufficient to meet the some evidence" standard to uphold the disciplinary ruling, it must be determined if the confidential informant's information was reliable. The court said there was some ambiguity in its case law as to whether a hearing officer must make an independent assessment of informant credibility to ensure that disclosures qualify as some reliable evidence, or whether they can simply rely on the opinions of prison officials who have dealt with the informants. The court resolved that ambiguity in this case.

The court held that when credible informants provide hearsay disclosures, the hearing officer must consider the totality of the circumstances to determine if that information is reliable. When an informant makes conclusionary assertions, without any factual basis as to what the informant saw or heard, those assertions cannot qualify as reliable evidence. The court concluded that Sira suffered a due process violation because prison officials ordered him disciplined without some reliable evidence of misconduct when Morton failed to assess the informant's information in totality of the facts and failed to require support for conclusionary statements. The court, however, held the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on this issue because the law was not clearly established.

The District Court's denial of the guard's summary judgment motion was affirmed in part, reversed in part. See: Sira v. Morton, 380 F.3d 57 (2nd Cir. 2004).

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