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Impartial Prison Disciplinary Hearing Officials Required in Nevada

By Matt Clarke

On February 9, 2009, a Nevada state court restored the statutory good conduct time lost by a prisoner in a disciplinary proceeding in which the presiding official was biased.

Brian Eugene Lepley, a Nevada state prisoner, was charged with the disciplinary infraction of knowing he was infected with HIV yet having physical sexual relations with another prisoner. A disciplinary hearing was held and Lepley claimed innocence. CCS II Bruce Harkreader, the hearing officer, suspended the hearing. Harkreader, along with another prison official, "conducted additional investigation into the matter." The hearing was re-convened two weeks later and Lepley was found guilty, required to forfeit good conduct time, placed in disciplinary segregation and referred to the sexual classification committee for imposition of HIV administrative segregation housing.

Lepley filed a proper person petition for a writ of habeas corpus, civil rights complaint, small claims action, motion to remove the prison system's director and petition for a writ of prohibition which were assigned to a district judge and a magistrate judge. All of Lepley's actions and claims were dented or dismissed. Lepley appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld dismissal of all of Lepley's claims except a challenge to the composition of the disciplinary hearing committee and the impartiality of the disciplinary hearing officer. Lepley had argued that due process and a Nevada administrative regulation required three impartial disciplinary hearing committee members and he had only one member and he was biased. The district court had failed to make specific findings on the claim. Thus, the Supreme Court could not proceed on the matter. It was irrelevant that the district court had found sufficient evidence to support the disciplinary conviction because Lepley's challenge was to the basic fairness of the proceeding. Therefore, the case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings on September 5, 2008.

On remand, the district court held a hearing at which Lepley and Harkreader testified. The district court then found that there was ample evidence that Harkreader had personally investigated Lepley's alleged disciplinary infraction. In doing so, he abandoned his impartial role as a decision maker. Therefore, the results of the disciplinary hearing had to be reversed and Lepley's good conduct time credits restored.

The district court clarified that its decision did not effect the decision to place Lepley in administrative segregation as that was a conditions-of-confinement issue which could not be raised in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Furthermore, the Nevada Department of Corrections was free to conduct another disciplinary action seeking forfeiture of the good conduct time credits so long as Harkreader was not a hearing officer. The district court did not rule on Lepley's contention that he should have had three disciplinary hearing committee members.

Lepley appealed the district court's decision, but again raised issues which could not be presented in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Dismissing the appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court held that it had no jurisdiction in the matter as Lepley was not complaining about the district court's grant of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

See: Lepley v. Warden, Nevada State Prison, 6th District Court (Pershing CO.), No. PI 04-435; Nev.S.Ct. Nos. 49277 and 53508 (3 separate rulings).

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Related legal case

Lepley v. Warden, Nevada State Prison