$6,500 Paid by Nevada DOC After Ninth Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity for Withholding Evidence From Prisoner Accused of Smuggling Meth in Mail
by David M. Reutter
AS PREVIOUSLY REPORTED BY PLN, OFficials with the Nevada Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2020 lost a suit filed pro se in federal district court by a state prisoner they disciplined for smuggling methamphetamine through the prison mail, with the court agreeing his Fourteenth Amendment due-process rights were violated by officials’ refusal to let him examine evidence underlying the charge.
The facts underlying the case trace back to 2016, when officials at High Desert State Prison acted on a tip and intercepted the drugs in two envelopes addressed to the prisoner, John Melnik. He denied responsibility, saying he’d been framed by a prison gang. But he was not allowed to examine the evidence, shown only images at a disciplinary hearing when he was found guilty, receiving two separate eighteen-month terms of disciplinary confinement that allegedly delayed his parole consideration for two years as a result.
After the district court denied Defendants qualified immunity, it agreed that Melnik’s due-process rights were violated and granted his cross-motion for summary judgment. [See: PLN, Aug. 2020, p.25.]
On September 27, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that denial of qualified immunity, in an appeal brought by six former and current DOC employees whom Melnik sued.
On appeal, Melnik was represented by Samuel Weiss of Rights Behind Bars in Washington, D.C., and three attorneys from O’Melveny & Myers LLP: Yaira Dubin from New York, Jonathan D. Hacker from Washington, D.C. and Melissa C. Cassel from San Francisco.
Taking up the case, the Ninth Circuit began by citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 94 S. Ct. 2963 (1974), noting that “the right … to ‘present documentary evidence in’ the prisoner’s own defense must generally include the ability to obtain that documentary evidence in the first place.”
“Similarly,” the Court continued, “if a prisoner is to be able to respond to evidence presented against him, as a general proposition he should be allowed to know what it is and to examine it, unless there is reason to the contrary.”
Defendants claimed they had a reason: They might use the evidence in a criminal proceeding against Melnik. But the Court batted that down, noting that this possibility “cannot logically serve as a valid basis to keep from a prisoner charged with a disciplinary violation all evidence related to the alleged violation. If it could, then prisons could avoid any obligations under Wolff by noting a possibility of referral for prosecution.”
Rather, the Court concluded, “Melnik had a constitutional right to see the envelopes or copies of them, as they were evidence to be used in his prison disciplinary hearing” and because “Melnik had a protected liberty interest at stake as he faced administrative confinement.”
The Court also found the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the events, so the denial of qualified immunity was affirmed, along with the rest of the district court’s order. See: Melnik v. Dzurenda, 14 F.4th 981 (9th Cir. 2021).
The case returned to the district court, where the parties reached a settlement on February 24, 2022, providing a payment to Melnik of $6,500, forgiveness on his behalf of $1,961.26 in institutional debt and expungement of both related disciplinary convictions on his record. The parties agreed to bear their own attorneys’ fees and costs. See: Melnik v. Dzurenda, USDC (D. Nev.), Case No. 3:16-cv-00670.
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