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California: Disciplinary Conviction Upheld Where Petitioner Argued Only Violation of Constitutional Rights, Not State Law Rights

Strictly construing the U.S. Supreme Court's "some evidence" rule, the California Court of Appeal held that where one cellmate had secreted contraband razor blades in his cell property, his cellmate could be infracted for them as well.

Richard Zepeda, incarcerated at Calipatria State Prison, petitioned the Imperial County Superior Court to reverse his disciplinary conviction (with 360 days credit loss) for implicitly violating prison regulations that ban the possession of weapons, where the contraband was admittedly his cellmate's and he had no knowledge of it.

The court abated the disciplinary conviction after finding that "the evidence shows [Zepeda] had no control over what contraband may be in possession of his cellmate and no evidence was presented that [Zepeda] possessed any knowledge of the weapon in question."

On appeal by Calipatria's Warden, the appellate court reviewed the ruling de novo. The court noted that Zepeda only claimed that the disciplinary finding violated his U.S. Constitutional due process rights under Superintendent v. Hill (1985) 472 U.S. 445, 455. Like in Hill, Zepeda did not claim that the disciplinary board's findings failed to meet state evidentiary standards [see: Cal. Penal Code § 2932, permitting revocation of conduct credits based upon "a preponderance of the evidence"]. Prison officials at the hearing had hypothesized that because the cup containing the blades was on a shelf accessible to both cellmates, there was a possibility that Zepeda knew of them. While as "evidence," it was admittedly "meager," it amounted to "some evidence" per the Hill standard (id., at 455-456, "whether there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion reached by the disciplinary board"). Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the superior court's grant of the writ.

California prisoners should learn from this case that when challenging a disciplinary conviction in state court, they should allege that the hearing officer failed to reasonably conclude that a preponderance of the evidence [See also: Cal. Evidence Code § 115] supported the guilty finding. If Zepeda had raised this claim in his administrative appeals and his writ petition, he would have easily prevailed based upon the admissions of prison staff that the evidence was ?meager,? i.e., insufficient.

See: In re Zepeda, 141 Cal.App.4th 1493, 47 Cal.Rptr.3d 172 (Cal.App. 4 Dist., 2006).

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Related legal case

In re Zepeda