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Ninth Circuit: California Federal Habeas Petitioner Sufficiently Exhausts State Court Remedies When He Presents Facts Necessary to Support Constitutional Claim

Ninth Circuit: California Federal Habeas Petitioner Sufficiently Exhausts State Court Remedies When He Presents Facts Necessary to Support Constitutional Claim

by John E. Dannenberg

A California state prisoner challenging a prison disciplinary conviction first pursued his state habeas corpus petition through the highest state court, the California Supreme Court. However, his inartful pro se pleadings were later deemed in his federal habeas petition to have been insufficient to provide the state courts with any factual basis for relief, and his federal petition was therefore dismissed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed on appeal, finding the petition cited state law, federal constitutional authority and federal case law in support of the claim of denial of a witness in the disciplinary hearing, which put the California courts on sufficient notice of the legal theory and facts applicable to that theory.

California state prisoner Michael Davis, serving nine years for burglary, was infracted for allegedly committing a battery on staff. The incident occurred in the kitchen where Davis worked, when he was found cooking his own food on the kitchen grill and ordered to stop. He allegedly refused, copped an attitude and sloshed a 6-inch “hotel pan” full of hot cooking oil onto the kitchen supervisor, splashing his arm and shirt. Davis was found guilty of the disciplinary charge and lost 150 days of good-time credit. He claimed his due process rights were violated in the disciplinary hearing when he was denied a witness.

In his state habeas pleadings, Davis raised the witness-denial due process claim and cited Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974), California Penal Code § 2932(A)(3), and prison regulation § 3315(E). Upon finally reaching the federal courts, his case was dismissed on the grounds that he had failed to exhaust available state court remedies.

The Ninth Circuit observed that the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(c), only requires that prisoners give state courts a fair opportunity to act on their claims. Such fair presentation requires the petitioner to present both the operative facts and the federal legal theory, so as to permit the court to apply “controlling legal principles to the facts bearing upon the constitutional claim.”

While the state conceded that Davis had fairly presented the legal basis of his claim, it faulted him for factual deficiencies. The Ninth Circuit, however, stated that § 2254(c) does not impose a duty on the petitioner to present “every piece of evidence” supporting his federal claims in order to satisfy the exhaustion requirement.

Davis’ constitutional claim regarding denial of a witness only imported a duty to provide state courts with facts sufficient to give notice of that claim. Moreover, he was entitled to some slack as a pro per litigant. The appellate court found that while Davis did not supply a clear factual narrative, he did state that he “was denied due process rights under Wolff ... to a witness,” and cited a case, a statute and a regulation. These latter sources saved Davis’ petition and amounted to “fair presentation” of his claim, thus satisfying the exhaustion requirement in the state courts below.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court and remanded for further proceedings. See: Davis v. Silva, 511 F.3d 1005 (9th Cir. 2008). Pro se federal habeas petitioners should study this case to learn how to avoid similar dismissals of their otherwise worthy claims.

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Related legal case

Davis v. Silva