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Seventh Circuit Reverses Prisoner's Disciplinary Conviction

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has taken the unusual step of reversing a prison disciplinary board's finding that a prisoner was guilty of committing a prohibited act.

Timothy W. Austin was a prisoner at an Indiana prison when he was found guilty of attempting to traffic in tobacco. The entire body of evidence used against Austin at his disciplinary hearing was a grammatically flawed statement by "Ofc Spoon." In the statement, Spoon stated that while "shaking down the crawl spase [sic]" in which Austin was allegedly assigned to a work detail, he found Ziploc baggies with tobacco in them.

Austin provided uncontradicted testimony that he had only worked in the crawl space one day out of the four weeks he was assigned to the area. He also provided uncontradicted testimony that four other inmates were in the crawl space on the same day he was.

The prison disciplinary board found this to be sufficient evidence and convicted Austin. His punishment consisted of losing 60 days of good conduct time, being demoted to a lower credit class, being given 20 hours of extra duty, and being denied commissary privileges for 25 days.

Austin filed a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging that this virtually evidence-free conviction denied him due process of law. The district court denied relief, finding that the evidence, at minimum, supported a conviction on a constructive possession theory.

The Seventh Circuit reversed. The court found that because the uncontradicted evidence indicated that five people had access to the crawl space, there was only a 20 percent chance that Austin was "the culprit."

"[I]t seems odd, to say the least, that someone should be punished when there is an 80 percent probability that he is innocent," wrote the court.

The court also found that the district court's theory of constructive possession was faulty. The evidence indicated that Austin did not know about the tobacco, so he could not have been in constructive possession of it. Moreover, even had Austin known about the tobacco, he couldn't have been in constructive possession of it because "a bystander who merely notices something is not in constructive possession of it."

In finding that Austin was denied due process of law, the court stated, "when the imposition of prison discipline is not supported by even 'some evidence,' which we think the proper characterization of the scanty record in this case, the prisoner is entitled to a writ of habeas corpus commanding that the discipline be rescinded." See:  Austin v. Pazera, 779 F.3d 437, 439 (7th Cir. 2015).

Related legal case

Austin v. Pazera