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Helms v. Hewitt

decided: June 30, 1981.



Before Garth and Rosenn, Circuit Judges, and Miller, Judge.*fn*

Author: Rosenn


In this appeal we are asked to adjust the tensions between the necessity for efficient and orderly administration of state prisons on the one hand and the protection of important constitutional interests of their inmates on the other. The plaintiff, Aaron Helms, filed this action in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1976) requesting damages and injunctive and declaratory relief against certain officials of the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania ("SCI Huntingdon"). He claims that he was placed in a restrictive custody status for 51 days without being afforded the procedural safeguards established by state regulations or required by due process. He also asserts that the adjudication of institutional charges against him was constitutionally tainted by the substantive use of critical hearsay testimony relating information allegedly obtained from an unidentified informant. The defendants were granted summary judgment by the district court, and plaintiff appealed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1976). We reverse.


On December 3, 1978, a general disturbance occurred at SCI Huntingdon in which several guards were injured. With the assistance of state and local police the prison staff quelled the disturbance that same evening. The prisoners in general population were confined to their cells until the next day, when the prison returned to normality. Plaintiff Helms was removed from his general population cell at approximately 10:00 p. m. on December 3, interviewed by the state police, and placed in restrictive custody.*fn1

On December 4, 1978, Helms was given a copy of Misconduct Report Number 90908, which charged him with assaulting corrections officers and disrupting normal institutional routine during the previous evening. On December 8, 1978, Helms appeared before an institutional Hearing Committee ("HC"), an administrative panel charged with adjudicating misconducts. 37 Pa. Code § 95.103(c).*fn2 The Hearing Committee Report indicates that no determination concerning Helms' guilt was made at that time "due to insufficient information." The report also directs that Helms "continue in Restrictive Housing Unit, Investigation under the provisions of Administrative Directive 004." The directive to which the report refers establishes procedures to be employed when inmate conduct violates not only institutional regulations but also the state penal code. This proffered authority for continuing Helms in restrictive custody status deals with situations in which the state police have been called in for investigative assistance. It reads, in pertinent part:


A. ...

B. Pending arrival of the State Police, the institutional representative shall:

1. Place all suspects and resident witnesses or complainants in such custody, protective or otherwise, as may be necessary to maintain security. A hearing complying with BC-ADM 801 (37 Pa. Code § 95.103)*fn3 will be carried out after the investigation period. Such hearing shall be held within four (4) days unless the investigation warrants delay and in that case as soon as possible.

BC-ADM 004 at IV(B)(1) (Bureau of Correction Administrative Directive, issued Nov. 15, 1972, amended Aug. 5, 1975). As we have observed, the state police had interviewed Helms on December 3, just prior to his confinement in restrictive custody. Because the police investigation was incomplete, the HC apparently believed that the section 95.103 hearing should be delayed.

Eight days after Helms was placed in restrictive custody, the Commonwealth filed criminal charges against him, charging him with assaulting Corrections Officer Rhodes and riot. On January 2, 1979, the plaintiff appeared before an institutional Program Review Committee (PRC) composed of defendants Erhard, Henry, and Mateer. Although a PRC may serve as an appellate forum for review of HC decisions, the January 2 body sat in its capacity as a status review agency. As such it was charged with evaluating the circumstances of inmates in restrictive custody and making recommendations on their future confinement. These status reviews were to be made at least weekly and were to involve a personal interview of the inmate every 30 days. 37 Pa.Code § 95.103(g). After reviewing Helms' circumstances, the PRC recommended that he remain in Administrative Custody. The PRC members indicated in affidavits to the district court that they adopted this course of action because they understood that a preliminary hearing on the state criminal charges was scheduled for the following day. Superintendent Lowell Hewitt, also named as a defendant in this action, concurred in the PRC's recommendation to continue Helms in restrictive custody. The preliminary hearing on the state criminal charges took place on January 10 and the criminal proceedings were "continued." In the meantime, Helms had not been afforded the hearing provided for by state regulations on the misconduct charge.

On January 19, 1979, plaintiff was given a copy of another Misconduct Report (number 90986), charging him with striking Sgt. Phillips, a corrections officer at the facility, during the disturbance of December 3, 1978. This Misconduct Report had been prepared by Lt. Buddy Kyler, a defendant to this action, based on "information from confidential informants."

On January 22, 1979, an HC composed of defendants Stotelmyer, Smith, and Hileman convened a hearing on the latest misconduct charge. The only evidence presented in support of these charges was the testimony of Lt. Kyler, who related what he had allegedly been told by informants. For safety reasons, the alleged informants were not identified, either to the defendant or to the members of the HC. The HC found Helms guilty on these charges (No. 90986) and sentenced him to six months in Disciplinary Close Custody, effective December 3, 1978. The HC Report of January 22, 1979, also contains the following statement: "NOTE: This finding and disposition concludes action on misconduct #90908, heard Dec. 8, 1978 without conclusion."

The Commonwealth dropped the criminal charges against Helms on February 6, 1979.*fn4 He has, since the events detailed above, been paroled from the correctional facility.


Helms' complaint propounds three theories under which he alleges he was denied the protections of the Due Process Clause of the fourteenth amendment. First, he claims that the prison treatment he received from December 3, 1978, to January 22, 1979, did not comply with the procedures established by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Correction's regulations. The process mandated under state law, Helms claims, was the process that was "due" under the fourteenth amendment. Failure of state officials to afford him the process is thus alleged to be a denial of his federal constitutional rights.*fn5

Second, plaintiff claims that the state's prison regulations created for him an expectancy or entitlement that he would not be placed in restrictive custody absent conduct on his part meeting specific criteria established by those regulations. This expectancy or entitlement, he asserts, rose to the level of a state-created liberty interest of which Helms could be deprived only by constitutionally mandated "due process of law." Under Helms' theory such process includes a determination, within a reasonable period of time, whether his conduct met the regulatory criteria. Helms claims that the fifty-one days spent in restrictive custody prior to a hearing on the merits of his detention amounted to a denial of his state-created liberty interest without due process.

Finally, Helms shifts his attack from his prolonged administrative confinement to the procedural regularity of his eventual disciplinary hearing. He attacks the January 22, 1979, finding of guilt as resting on a hearsay account of uncorroborated information garnered from a single unidentified informant. He alleges that the HC heard no evidence of the informant's motive, credibility, or trustworthiness on which to base a reasoned evaluation of his information. Helms asserts that when information is presented in such a manner, it is so lacking in reliability that to predicate a finding of guilt and disciplinary sanctions on it contravenes principles of fundamental fairness implicit in the Due Process Clause.

Before answering plaintiff's complaint, defendants moved to dismiss it or, alternatively, for summary judgment. The motion was referred to a United States Magistrate who recommended that it be granted. Relying on Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 96 S. Ct. 2532, 49 L. Ed. 2d 451 (1976), Montanye v. Haymes, 427 U.S. 236, 96 S. Ct. 2543, 49 L. Ed. 2d 466 (1976), and Hodges v. Klein, 562 F.2d 276 (3d Cir. 1977), the magistrate concluded that transfer to Administrative Custody infringed no interest protected by the fourteenth amendment. He treated Helms' challenge to the use of information from an unidentified informant as an assertion of a right to confrontation and a right to counsel and summarily disposed of these contentions on the authority of Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 94 S. Ct. 2963, 41 L. Ed. 2d 935 (1974).

The district court declined to adopt the magistrate's recommendations and denied the defendants' motion without prejudice to renewal. In a memorandum opinion, it thoughtfully concluded that the magistrate had given Meachum and Montanye an overly-broad reading in light of the Supreme Court's action in Enomoto v. Wright, 434 U.S. 1052, 98 S. Ct. 1233, 55 L. Ed. 2d 756 (1978), aff'g mem. 462 F. Supp. 397 (N.D.Cal.1976). Pretrial proceedings continued and, at the close of discovery, both parties ...

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