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Failure to Record Disciplinary Hearing, Allow Adverse Witnesses in Alaskan Prison Disciplinary Hearing Violates Due Process

by Matt Clarke

On September 2, 2011, the Supreme Court of Alaska held that due process was violated when prison officials failed to record a prisoner's disciplinary hearing or allow him to call his accusers as witnesses.

Joseph James, an Alaskan state prisoner, was interviewed by grievance officer Carl Richey regarding complaints he had about staff members. The day after the interview, he received a disciplinary incident report alleging that he had threatened a former state legislator with future bodily injury during his interview with Richey. The report was written by prison staff member G. Mathey, who had not been present during the interview.

After a hearing, a disciplinary officer found James guilty and he was placed in punitive segregation for twenty days. When James had exhausted his administrative appeals, he filed an appeal in superior court. During the entire appeal process, James claimed that his due process rights under the federal and Alaskan constitutions were violated because the person who wrote the incident report had no personal knowledge of the alleged infraction, he was denied witnesses and the hearing was not recorded.

The account of what happened before and during the disciplinary hearing differ. James alleged that he requested both Richey and Mathey as witnesses via a Request for Interview Form which he sent to the disciplinary officer and asked why they were not present to testify when the hearing began. The Department of Corrections (DOC) denied having received a written request and alleged James first made the request at the hearing and that was too late. The DOC maintained that no recording or due process was required for hearings in minor disciplinary cases.

The court held that James's due process rights had not been violated. He appealed to the Supreme Court of Alaska.

The Supreme Court held that the quantum of punishment determined whether a disciplinary case was major or not. Because James had been given 20 days in disciplinary segregation as a punishment, the case was major. Therefore, he was entitled to due process protections.
Under the Alaskan Constitution and state statutes, a prisoner in a major disciplinary proceeding has the due process rights to call witnesses, produce favorable documentary evidence, confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses and have the hearing recorded to preserve a record for appeal. The DOC's failure to afford that process violated James's due process rights.

22 AAC 05.435 affords prisoners due process protections in disciplinary proceedings. 22 AAC 05.410(b) requires that the staff member with the greatest knowledge of the incident write the disciplinary report. 22 AAC 05.455(a) does not allow an incident report to be used as the sole evidence against a prisoner unless the prisoner fails to request the person writing the report as a witness. State regulations require that a prisoner give notice of a request for witnesses to testify on his behalf 24 hours before the hearing. But Richey and Mathey are accusers, not favorable witnesses, so the time limit does not apply.

James alleged that the interview with Richey was quite different than described in the incident report. Thus, he was harmed by the due process violations. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case to that court with orders that the disciplinary determination be vacated and a new disciplinary hearing held in which James is to be given an opportunity to confront and cross examine his accusers. See: James v. State of Alaska, 260 P.3d 1046 (Ak. 2011).

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Related legal case

James v. State of Alaska