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White v. Warden

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

December 11, 2018

BRIAN J. WHITE, Petitioner,
WARDEN, Respondent.



         Brian J. White, a prisoner without a lawyer, filed a habeas corpus petition challenging a disciplinary hearing (MCF 17-02-383) where a Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO) found him guilty of attempting to traffick in violation of Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC) policies A-111 and A-113 on March 8, 2017. ECF 1 at 1, ECF 10-3 at 1. As a result, he was sanctioned with the loss of 90 days earned credit time and demoted in credit class. Id. The Warden has filed the administrative record and White filed a traverse. Thus this case is fully briefed.

         The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees prisoners certain procedural due process rights in prison disciplinary hearings: (1) advance written notice of the charges; (2) an opportunity to be heard before an impartial decision-maker; (3) an opportunity to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in defense, when consistent with institutional safety and correctional goals; and (4) a written statement by the fact-finder of evidence relied on and the reasons for the disciplinary action. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974). To satisfy due process, there must also be “some evidence” in the record to support the guilty finding. Superintendent, Mass. Corr Inst. v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 455 (1985). In his petition, White argues there are three grounds which entitle him to habeas corpus relief.

         In the context of a prison disciplinary hearing, “the relevant question is whether there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion reached by the disciplinary board.” Hill, 472 U.S. at 455-56. “In reviewing a decision for some evidence, courts are not required to conduct an examination of the entire record, independently assess witness credibility, or weigh the evidence, but only determine whether the prison disciplinary board's decision to revoke good time credits has some factual basis.” McPherson v. McBride, 188 F.3d 784, 786 (7th Cir. 1999) (quotation marks omitted).

[T]he findings of a prison disciplinary board [need only] have the support of some evidence in the record. This is a lenient standard, requiring no more than a modicum of evidence. Even meager proof will suffice, so long as the record is not so devoid of evidence that the findings of the disciplinary board were without support or otherwise arbitrary. Although some evidence is not much, it still must point to the accused's guilt. It is not our province to assess the comparative weight of the evidence underlying the disciplinary board's decision.

Webb v. Anderson, 224 F.3d 649, 652 (7th Cir. 2000) (quotation marks, citations, parenthesis, and ellipsis omitted).

         Here, White was found guilty of attempting to traffic in violation of IDOC policies A-111 and A-113. Specifically, IDOC offense A-111 prohibits inmates from “[a]ttempting or conspiring or aiding and abetting with another to commit any Class A offense.” Indiana Department of Correction, Adult Disciplinary Process: Appendix I. The Disciplinary Code for Adult Offenders defines “conspiracy” as “[t]wo (2) or more offenders or other persons planning or agreeing to commit acts which are prohibited by Department or facility rule, procedure or directive.” The Disciplinary Code for Adult Offenders. AdultOffenders6-1-2015.pdf. IDOC offense A-113 prohibits inmates from ”[e]ngaging in trafficking (as defined in IC 35-44.1-3-5) with anyone who is not an offender residing in the same facility. “ Appendix I, supra. And “[a] person who, without the prior authorization of the person in charge of a penal facility . . ., knowingly or intentionally delivers . . . an article to an inmate . . . of the facility . . . commits trafficking with an inmate, a Class A misdemeanor.” Ind. Code § 35-44.1-3-5(b)(1), (3).

         The Conduct Report charged White as follows:

During the course of a month long investigation information was gathered on Offender Brian White, 238512. This information pertained to him, and a female suspect on the outside. White got access to Offender Jerry Hardman's PIN number with the assistance of this female via JPay. White was able to communicate using Hardman's number on the offender phone system. They spoke of “setting up parties” and what & who would be at the party; crystal and cake (code for crystal meth and Suboxone.) Based on information gathered, outside law enforcement was contacted and the female suspect was monitored. Also White communicated with this female over the JPay system but she did not use her real name.
On February 4th the female suspect was stopped, vehicle was searched and she was placed in jail (on going investigation.) Through her own admission she was on her way to meet someone [who] was going to bring drugs inside this prison. An Aramark worker was detained and arrested on the 5th for attempting to traffick [ ]. It is not clear if White was actually a part of this deal but with all the telephone calls, the JPays and his association with Hardman and this female it has been established that he was attempting to conspire with her to set up drugs coming inside.
All evidence can be viewed or listened to at the DII office. Case reference listed below [17-MCF-0021 Trafficking and 17-MCF-0020].

ECF 10-1 at 1.

         In his first ground, White argues his due process rights were violated because he was denied a fair hearing before an impartial decision-maker. ECF 1 at 2. As an initial matter, however, White has not met the exhaustion requirement contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), as to this issue. To have exhausted his administrative remedies, White must have properly presented the issue at each administrative level. Moffat v. Broyles, 288 F.3d 978, 981-82 (7th Cir. 2002). However, notwithstanding White's failure to exhaust, the court may deny the claim on the merits. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2) (“[a]n application for a writ of habeas corpus may be denied on the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant to exhaust the remedies available in the courts of the State”).

         Turning to the merits of his claim, in the prison disciplinary context, adjudicators are “entitled to a presumption of honesty and integrity, ” and “the constitutional standard for improper bias is high.” Piggie v. Cotton, 342 F.3d 660, 666 (7th Cir. 2003). Due process prohibits a prison official who was personally and substantially involved in the underlying incident from acting as a decision-maker in the case. Id. However, due process is not violated simply because the hearing ...

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