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Washington Prisoner Sues Over Bogus Disciplinary Actions; State Settles for $1,500

The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) has paid one of its prisoners $1,500 to dismiss a civil rights action he filed after disciplinary actions taken against him were vacated for being unlawful.
Lonnie Burton is a Washington state prisoner who, in April of 2001, was serving time at the Stafford Creek Correction Center in Aberdeen. An unidentified Stafford Creek guard who claimed Burton had been billing collect calls to third parties infracted him for soliciting services he couldn?t pay for. He was found guilty and sanctioned to twenty days of cell confinement and twenty days loss of good time.

He was soon transferred to the Airway Heights Correction Center near Spokane. In August of 2001, an Airway Heights guard named Castillo found a crude outline of a cell key, a small container of urine, and material from adult book vendors during a search of Burton?s cell. He was infracted and found guilty of possessing material likely to be used in an escape attempt and creating a risk of injury through careless behavior. His sanctions for these transgressions were six days of segregation and one-hundred-twenty days loss of good time.

After unsuccessfully appealing within the DOC, Burton challenged the infraction?s validity in a Personal Restraint Petition in the state court of appeals. The Attorney General agreed that he?d been sanctioned in error and had the infractions expunged and his good time restored.

Burton then filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the federal district court at Tacoma. He claimed, among other things, that the DOC violated his right to due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it rescinded his good time credits through invalid disciplinary actions. He sought both injunctive and monetary relief.

On summary judgment, the court dismissed all of Burton?s claims except the above due process claim. A prisoner cannot attack the length of his sentence in a § 1983 action. But once a prisoner has prevailed in an action that reduces the length of his sentence because of a constitutional error, as Burton had done by getting his good time restored through vacation of the disciplinary actions, he may sue for damages under § 1983. Thus, the court held that Burton must be allowed to proceed on this claim.

Faced with the prospect of taking a losing case to trial, DOC?s Deputy Secretary, Eldon Vail, signed an agreement to pay Burton $1,500 to dismiss the suit on August 18, 2005. See: Burton v. Waddington, USDC WDWA, Case No. C03-501-FDB.

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Related legal case

Burton v. Waddington