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Kansas: Self-Defense Must be Disproved in Prison Disciplinary Proceeding

by Lonnie Burton

The Kansas Supreme Court held on June 17, 2016 that prison authorities must disprove a claim of self-defense when a prisoner is charged with fighting and asserts he was merely defending himself. The ruling overturned a Court of Appeals decision which had upheld a judgment by a hearing officer that placed the burden to show self-defense on the prisoner.

William May was incarcerated at the Larned Correctional Facility in Kansas in 2012 when he got into a fight with a fellow prisoner. May claimed he was attacked and only defended himself, but still was found guilty of fighting by the hearing officer, who held that “with no evidence of self-defense,” he had been “involved in a fight.”

May then filed a petition challenging his infraction under K.S.A. 60-1501 in Reno County District Court, claiming there was no evidence to support the decision of the hearing officer and asking the court to reverse the infraction. Finding that the hearing officer “made no attempt to evaluate the reasonableness” of May’s self-defense claim, the district court held the decision violated May’s right to due process and overturned the guilty finding.

The Kansas Court of Appeals reversed, however, holding that “some evidence” supported the hearing officer’s decision and prison officials were “not obligated to disprove self-defense.”

May filed a petition for review with the Kansas Supreme Court, which overturned the appellate ruling and affirmed the district court’s order nullifying the infraction.

In holding that a Kansas prisoner has a right under the U.S. and Kansas constitutions to a claim of self-defense, and that when such a claim is made it is up to prison officials to produce at least “some evidence” to disprove it, the Court cited to the prison regulation that defines fighting. K.A.R. 44-12-301 provides as follows: “Fighting or other activity which constitutes violence, or which is likely to lead to violence, is prohibited unless such activity is in self-defense.”

The state Supreme Court held that the plain language of K.A.R. 44-12-301 makes the absence of self-defense an essential element of fighting. “A defendant claiming self-defense must first meet the burden to come forward with some competent evidence in support of the claim, and thereafter, the state has the burden of disproving the defense,” the Court wrote.

The presence of the language “unless such activity was in self-defense,” the Supreme Court ruled, establishes a burden on prison disciplinary officials to prove the “activity” was not in “self-defense.”

Recognizing the quantum of evidence needed to support a prison disciplinary action is minimal, the Court nevertheless found that there was “nary a scintilla” of evidence in May’s case to conclude he was not acting in self-defense.

“May was not accorded due process when he was found to have violated K.A.R. 44-12-301 despite a complete failure of proof of one of the elements of the offense,” the Kansas Supreme Court concluded, and therefore reversed the appellate ruling. See: May v. Cline, 304 Kan. 671, 372 P.3d 1242 (Kan. 2016). 

Related legal case

May v. Cline