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Alaska Supreme Court Reverses Disciplinary Case Where Prisoner Not Allowed to Call Witnesses

by Matt Clarke and David Reutter

On April 27, 2018, the Supreme Court of Alaska held that a prisoner had been improperly denied his right to call witnesses at a prison disciplinary hearing, and his failure to raise that issue during administrative appeals did not waive the issue.

Scott Walker, an Alaska state prisoner, began working as an orientation assistant in the Special Management Unit at the Goose Creek Correctional Center in October 2013. He wrote up an outline of orientation topics and awaited further instructions. Ten months later, Criminal Justice Technician Brooke Baumgartner met with Walker and learned he had continued to be paid but had not actively worked in nine months. He told her he had tried to inform four officers about the payroll mistake, but could only name two.

He also said he had sent several “Request for Interview Forms” to prison employees addressing the situation. Such forms are returned to a prisoner’s file after they are received by staff.

Baumgartner did not find any of the forms in Walker’s file, and one of the two staff members Walker named said he never mentioned the payroll error. The payments to Walker while he wasn’t working were estimated at $633.50.

He was charged with “stealing, destroying, altering or damaging government property” and “lying or providing false information to a staff member.” Walker timely requested three witnesses at his disciplinary hearing: the two officers to whom he said he had reported the overpayment issue and a prisoner working as a job services clerk, who also allegedly reported the problem to a staff member.

The disciplinary hearing officer denied the request for witnesses without explanation, found Walker guilty and ordered him to pay $316 in restitution. Walker unsuccessfully appealed to the superintendent.

He then appealed to superior court. The court found that “some evidence” supported the disciplinary conviction, and held Walker had waived his due process claims by failing to mention them in his appeal to the superintendent. An appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court followed.

The Court held it is generally inappropriate for courts to review agency decisions based on arguments not raised before the administrative agency. In this case, however, the regulation covering appeals of prison disciplinary decisions, 22 AAC 05.480 (2004), does not include an issue exhaustion requirement. Neither do the forms given to prisoners during intra-agency appeals. A “failure to notify claimants of any issue-exhaustion requirement ... weighs against imposing one,” the Court observed.

Therefore, “prisoners who fail to raise their constitutional claims during the administrative appeal process [from disciplinary decisions] do not necessarily forfeit those claims” in subsequent judicial proceedings.

The Supreme Court noted that prisoners must submit their appeals within three working days of receiving the written disciplinary decision. They have no right to counsel or a staff advocate to assist in preparing their appeals. Thus, it is unlikely they will have the time or resources to properly present any constitutional claims.

The Court further noted that prison superintendents “have no special expertise to address constitutional claims,” and the regulations on disciplinary appeals do not require review of such claims.

Therefore, the state would not be prejudiced by allowing constitutional claims, such as the denial of witnesses, to be raised for the first time in superior court.

The Supreme Court found that Walker had a due process right to call witnesses at a major disciplinary hearing and that the denial of witnesses was prejudicial to his defense. Accordingly, the superior court’s decision affirming the disciplinary conviction was reversed and the case remanded for a new hearing. See: Walker v. State, 421 P.3d 74 (Alaska 2018). 


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Related legal case

Walker v. State