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California Court of Appeal Holds Prisoner May Challenge Administrative Disciplinary Violation Already Served

by Matt Clarke

A recent ruling by a California courtunderlines the importance for a prisoner to zealously guard his prison record, even after a challenge seems moot, for the impact it may yet hold in the future.

The decision on September 3, 2021, by the state Court of Appeal, held that a state prisoner’s challenge to an administrative disciplinary decision was not moot, despite his having served the disciplinary sentence. It then vacated the disciplinary adjudication because the defendant prison officials admitted it was conducted in a manner inconsistent with prison policy—namely by having a hearing officer who also had prior knowledge of and involvement in a related matter considered as evidence during the hearing.

The events underlying the case began on January 14, 2019, when a guard with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) searched prisoner Alex Marti’s property. The guard, J. Brown, found a contraband electric grill and ‘excess’ property—including tennis shoes and Tupperware bowls—in a quantity that exceeded permitted limits. Along with a receipt for the property seized, he allegedly gave Marti a verbal instruction to bring his property into compliance with limits.

All of this—including the verbal instruction—was documented in Brown’s rule violation report. He also issued a notice of rules violation to Marti. Brown’s superior, Sgt. M. Rhode, signed off on the report. A disciplinary hearing was then held solely on the issue of the contraband electric grill, and Marti was found guilty.

Months later, on May 5, 2019, Brown performed another search of Marti’s property and again found ‘excess’ property. He issued another notice of rule violation and directly referenced the earlier search, as well as the alleged instruction to correct it, in a new rule violation report.

When the matter came up for a disciplinary hearing on June 8, 2019, Rhode was the presiding officer. Marti claimed it was an improper stacking of discipline, that the notice of rules violation issued in January 2019 was “vague, poorly written and ambiguous,” and that he never received any verbal instruction from Brown. In his decision finding Marti guilty, Rhode explained that it was in fact based in part on that earlier verbal instruction from the guard. As a sentence, he imposed a 30-day revocation of recreation privileges.

Marti exhausted his administrative appeals, raising the issue that Rhode should not have been the hearing officer due to his prior involvement in the January 2019 case. He filed an unsuccessful petition for a writ of habeas corpus in state superior court, pointing to the fact that Rhode had clearly discussed the matter with Brown before Marti’s disciplinary hearing. After that claim was denied, he appealed.

The state Court of Appeal appointed attorney Susan Jordan to represent Marti and remanded the case to the superior court, where it was then decided the claim was moot because Marti had already served his disciplinary sentence.

Marti again took his case to the Court of Appeal, which reasoned that, because the disciplinary violation can factor into future decisions regarding discipline, parole or classification, a court can still offer meaningful relief after a disciplinary sentence is served. Therefore, it said the claim was not moot.

The Court then agreed with Marti that California Penal Code § 2932 (c)(l)(A), requires a hearing officer to be “independent of the case.” Further, staff who “observed, reported, classified, supplied supplemental reports to, or investigated the alleged rule violation” are excluded from being hearing officers by Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3320 (h). Thus, Rhode should not have been the hearing officer. The disciplinary adjudication was vacated, and CDCR was ordered to expunge it from Marti’s file. See: In re Marti, 69 Cal. App. 5th 561, 284 Cal. Rptr. 3d 667 (2021). 

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Related legal case

In re Marti