Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Washington Prisoners Need Not Show Prima Facie Case Upon Challenging Prison Discipline

by David M. Reutter

On February 4, 2010, the Washington State Supreme Court held that prisoners challenging prison disciplinary decisions do not have to make a prima facie case of prejudice to obtain review in a personal restraint petition. However, they still must show that the disciplinary hearing was so arbitrary and capricious as to deny them a fundamentally fair proceeding.
The matter was before the Court on an appeal of the personal restraint petition of James W. Grantham, a prisoner at McNeil Island Corrections Center. Grantham received a disciplinary infraction for possession, introduction, use or transfer of tobacco and controlled substances.

The infraction was issued after a guard, who was under investigation for bringing contraband into the facility, was confronted by other staff members. She turned over a plastic bag that contained smoking and chewing tobacco together with a coffee can containing marijuana. She did not know the name of the person who had given her the contraband but had his phone number, which belonged to Grantham’s brother.

Grantham’s petition stressed that a recorded telephone conversation between him and his brother did not involve explicit discussions of marijuana or tobacco. He further argued that the notice of charge was defective because it failed to specify the time and place of his conversation with his brother.

The Washington Supreme Court granted review primarily to resolve a dispute as to the standard that applies when there has been no previous opportunity for judicial review. It began its analysis by describing the common law history and purpose of habeas corpus, going back to its creation in England during the 1272-1307 reign of King Edward I.

Habeas, like the personal restraint petition, can be a great guardian of liberty, the Supreme Court wrote. It is not a substitute for an appeal, so to protect the finality of judgments the Court has imposed a prima facie pleading threshold before considering the merits of the substantive claim.

While the judiciary is reluctant to disturb a settled decision where the petitioner has already had an opportunity to appeal to a disinterested judge, that limiting principle does not apply to decisions made by executive officers and agents, even if other executive officers and agents are available to review such decisions.

The Washington Supreme Court therefore explicitly overruled the contrary decision of In re Pers. Restraint of Burton, 910 P.2d 1295 (Wash.App. Div.1 1996) [PLN, March 1997, p.13], holding that a prisoner challenging disciplinary actions via a personal restraint petition “where no judicial review has been afforded is not required to make a prima facie case of constitutional error and actual and substantial prejudice, or nonconstitutional error and total miscarriage of justice, as a precondition to relief.”

The Court emphasized, however, that it would “reverse a prison discipline decision only upon a showing that it was so arbitrary and capricious as to deny the petitioner a fundamentally fair proceeding so as to work to the offender’s prejudice.”

The Court held Grantham could not make such a showing, as he was informed of the charges against him and given an opportunity to defend himself. The appellate court’s decision dismissing Grantham’s petition was therefore affirmed. See: In re Pers. Restraint of Grantham, 168 Wash.2d 204, 227 P.3d 285 (Wash. 2010).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

In re Pers. Restraint of Grantham