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Maine Supreme Judicial Court Holds Courts Have Authority to Enjoin DOC from Unconstitutional Segregation Practices

In June 2014, a DOC guard filed a disciplinary report accusing prisoner Douglas Burr of contraband trafficking. Burr was subsequently held for 22 months in various levels of restrictive housing, including administrative segregation. During the disciplinary hearing Burr, concerned about possible criminal charges, presented no witnesses and offered no defense. He was sanctioned with 20 days in disciplinary segregation and a $100 fine. His administrative appeals were unsuccessful.

On September 4, 2014, Burr filed a complaint in state court with two counts. Count 1 requested judicial review of the disciplinary conviction under Rule 80C while Count 2 requested the court enjoin continued violations of Burr’s civil rights and require his release from segregation under § 1983.

Burr was returned to general population in March 2016. A trial was held in June 2019. Because the defendants had already afforded him the relief he requested under § 1983, Burr changed the requested relief to an injunction against segregation practices—including segregating a prisoner as a security risk without objective criteria for release from segregation and requiring a prisoner to confess to a disciplinary violation before being released.

The court found no evidence that Burr had been violent or threatened anyone before, during or after his confinement in segregation. It also noted that a Frontline documentary on the prison’s segregation conditions had spurred extensive reform in segregation practices. The court decided that Burr’s due process rights had been violated by a lack of meaningful review of his segregation status, a lack of objective release criteria, a lack of clarity on how much of the segregation time was disciplinary, and coercing him to admit misconduct to be released from segregation. However, due to the changes in segregation practices and the court’s lack of power to enjoin the DOC without a separation of powers violation, it held he was not entitled to relief under § 1983 and dismissed that count, denying requested attorney fees. On the other count, the court ordered restoration of Burr’s good time credits for time spent in non-disciplinary segregation, but did not overturn the disciplinary conviction. Aided by Orono attorney Eric M. Mehnert of Hawkes & Mehnert, Burr appealed.

The SJC held that the state constitution’s rigorous separation of powers does not prevent trial courts from enjoining the DOC from holding prisoners in segregation to coerce an admission of wrongdoing as that practice violates due process and serves no legitimate criminological interest. An injunction requiring objective criteria for release from segregation would also be permissible. The trial court also erred when it restored Burr’s good time credits lost while in nondisciplinary segregation under Rule 80C, which can only be used to challenge disciplinary decisions. Therefore, it partially vacated the judgment and remanded the case for the trial court to restore the good time credits under § 1983, consider offering injunctive relief, and consider awarding fees. See: Burr v. Department of Corrections, 240 A.3d 371 (ME 2020). 

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Related legal case

Burr v. Department of Corrections