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New York Appeals Court Finds Prisoner Improperly Denied Witnesses at Disciplinary Hearing, Yet Denies Relief

by Lonnie Burton

On September 30, 2016, a New York appellate court upheld the dismissal of a state prisoner's claim that he was unlawfully confined following a guilty finding at a prison disciplinary proceeding. The court found that while the prisoner's request for three witnesses was improperly denied, he failed to show that their testimony would have changed the outcome of the hearing.

Anthony Bottom was a prisoner at the Attica Correctional Facility's Special Housing Unit on January 5, 2012, when his cell was searched and guards found 14 photographs which purportedly depicted Bottom's family and friends at a memorial service for a deceased former member of the Black Panther Party.

Based on the pictures, prison officials issued Bottom a disciplinary report charging him with "unauthorized organization." At his hearing, Bottom sought to call three witnesses that would testify that he received the pictures legally through the mail system and that mailroom staff deemed them acceptable and he "was allowed to have them." Additionally, Bottom asserted a First Amendment right to possess the pictures.

The hearings officer refused to call the witnesses, found Bottom guilty, and sentenced Bottom to six months of segregation. After 66 days, Bottom's administrative appeal was granted, the infraction dismissed, and he was released to general population.

Bottom then sued in the New York Court of Claims, alleging prison officials unlawfully confined him by violating his rights to call witnesses and present evidence in his defense. The Court of Claims determined that defendants were entitled to absolute immunity and dismissed the complaint.

The New York Court of Appeals, however, reversed that finding, holding that "it is well settled that, where, as here, corrections personnel have violated the process safeguards (such as the right to call witnesses) ... those actions will not receive immunity."

The court found that Bottom had a right to call the witnesses absent a showing that doing so would put "institutional safety or correctional goals in jeopardy," a finding that was not made in this case.

The court then found that while the testimony was "material and relevant," Bottom failed to prove a prima facie case of unlawful confinement because he failed to "produce evidence that the testimony of his witnesses would have changed the outcome of the hearing."

Finally, the appellate court held Bottom's First Amendment claim was properly dismissed by the Court of Claims because that court lacks jurisdiction to hear federal constitutional torts. See: Bottom v. State of New York, No. 704 CA 15-00301 (C.A. NY), September 30, 2016.

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Related legal case

Bottom v. State of New York