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Alaska Disciplinary Order Vacated for Violating Wolff’s Statement of Reasons Requirement

by Mark Wilson

In an August 31, 2018 ruling, the Alaska Supreme Court held that a prison disciplinary order stating only that the prisoner was “guilty” violated his due process rights. 

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court held that due process requires prison disciplinary factfinders to produce “a ‘written statement ... as to the evidence relied on and reasons’ for the disciplinary action.” See: Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974). 

One year later, the Alaska Supreme Court decided that state prisoners are entitled “to all due process rights enunciated in Wolff,” and that the Alaska Constitution provides greater due process protections than the U.S. Constitution. Accordingly, rather than the mere written summary statement of evidence required by Wolff, Alaska prisoners are entitled to “have the entire hearing recorded for purposes of administrative appeal and potential further appeal to the superior court.”

Former Alaska prisoner Bob Huber received a misconduct report for creating a disturbance in the prison dining room on October 11, 2014. A guard claimed that Huber stared at him “in an intimidating manner, dropped food on the floor, yelled profanity at the officer, and refused to provide his inmate number when asked.” 

During a disciplinary hearing, the hearing officer read the guard’s allegations aloud and asked Huber how he pled. Huber pleaded not guilty and testified that the guard’s account of the incident misrepresented what happened. The hearing officer then found Huber guilty and imposed a sanction of 15 days in segregation. 

The written final order was issued on a standard form, which included a section for enumerating the “reasons, evidence considered and specific facts” upon which the decision was based. However, the hearing officer left that section blank. 

After the prison superintendent denied his administrative appeal, Huber appealed to the superior court, arguing for the first time that the hearing officer’s failure to include “a statement of the evidence relied upon and the specific facts found to support the disciplinary tribunal’s decision” deprived him of due process. The superior court affirmed the disciplinary decision, concluding that Huber had waived his argument by not raising it in his administrative appeal and that he failed to show he was prejudiced by the lack of written findings. 

The Alaska Supreme Court reversed. Following Walker v. State Department of Corrections, 421 P.3d 74 (Alaska 2018), the Court first concluded “that Huber did not forfeit his due process claim by failing to raise it during the disciplinary appeal process.” It then held “that the hearing officer’s bare conclusion that Huber was guilty does not satisfy the Wolff statement requirement.” Finally, the Court found Huber was prejudiced by the absence of a Wolff statement because it “precludes meaningful review of the hearing officer’s decision.” See: Huber v. Alaska Department of Corrections, 426 P.3d 969 (Alaska 2018). 

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Related legal case

Huber v. Alaska Department of Corrections