by Lonnie Burton
On April 19, 2016, a panel of the Seventh Circuit reversed the decision of an Indiana prison hearings officer who had found a state prisoner guilty of possessing heroin. The appellate court held that because the prisoner was prevented from defending against the accusation, his due process rights had been violated.
The case began when Curtis Ellison was incarcerated at the Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana. He was given what is known as a screening report, or notice of disciplinary proceeding, alleging that a week earlier heroin had been found during a search of his cell. The report noted that a guard named Bynum had searched Ellison’s cell that day, and heroin was found in cell 10-6D. But Ellison knew the two guards who searched his cell and Bynum was not one of them. Also, Ellison lived in cell 10-5D.
At his hearing, Ellison sought to introduce the testimony of the guards who had searched his cell, asserting they would testify that no contraband was found and “simple human error” led to his being mistakenly charged with the violation. Ellison also asked for guard Bynum to be a witness at the hearing to establish that the cell he searched was not Ellison’s. Lastly, he was not permitted to view and respond to a video of the officers entering his cell that day to prove that Bynum was not among them.
The hearing officer found Ellison guilty of the infraction and sanctioned him with 90 days loss of good time. She denied Ellison’s request for witnesses, giving no explanation for refusing to call Bynum. The hearing officer’s justification for refusing to call the other guard was because Ellison had failed to make the request in time, an allegation that Ellison disputed. Lastly, the hearing officer’s description of the video was “Ofc. seen going into Ofds. cell,” without identifying anyone.
After Ellison exhausted his administrative appeals he filed a § 2254 habeas petition in federal district court, which was summarily denied. The district court framed the issue as one of sufficiency of the evidence, and found that although contradictory evidence had been presented, there was still some evidence on which to sustain the finding of guilt. Ellison appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which reversed.
The Court of Appeals first noted that the district court read Ellison’s petition too narrowly. While he did raise a sufficiency of the evidence argument, the district court wrongly ignored the fact that Ellison was denied the right to present evidence in his defense.
“The issue here is not whether Officer Bynum’s conduct report provided a sufficient basis to find Ellison guilty,” the Court wrote. “When a prisoner contends that he was denied access to evidence necessary to defend against a disciplinary charge, his claim is properly understood as one of procedural due process rather than sufficiency of the evidence.”
In reversing the district court and vacating the disciplinary infraction, the Seventh Circuit pointed out that the conflict with the cell identified on the report and Ellison’s cell number made the hearing officer’s refusal to let Ellison present evidence on that ground “particularly troubling.” The only way to resolve that issue was to call the two guards as witnesses, which may have undermined the validity of the report.
Finally, the appellate court found the hearing officer’s treatment of the video equally problematic. “Her cursory statement that the video shows an officer entering Ellison’s cell misses the point, because unless it is Officer Bynum seen in the video entering Ellison’s cell,” the case falls apart.
“Given all these errors,” coupled with the failure of prison officials to “offer any explanation for the conflicting evidence to challenge Ellison’s version of events, we conclude that Ellison was denied due process,” the Court of Appeals wrote, and remanded the case for a new hearing.
Following remand, on May 18, 2016 the district court granted Ellison’s habeas petition and ordered the defendants to submit documentation showing that the disciplinary conviction had been vacated and Ellison’s earned credit time had been restored, pending a rehearing on the disciplinary charge. See: Ellison v. Zatecky, 820 F.3d 271 (7th Cir. 2016).
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Related legal case
Ellison v. Zatecky
|Cite||820 F.3d 271 (7th Cir. 2016)|
|Level||Court of Appeals|
|Appeals Court Edition||F.3d|