United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
November 22, 2005.
RAMON VEGA, Petitioner,
TROY WILLIAMSON, ET AL., Respondents.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: EDWIN KOSIK, Senior District Judge
Ramon Vega is an inmate currently confined at the United States
Penitentiary at Allenwood (USP-Allenwood), Pennsylvania. He filed
this petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 2241 on August 22, 2005, challenging the findings of a
disciplinary hearing and the sanctions which were ultimately
imposed. Named as Respondents are the following USP-Allenwood
officials: Troy Williamson, Warden; C. McConnell, Lieutenant; and
Todd W. Cerney, Disciplinary Hearing Officer ("DHO"). For the
reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.*fn1 BACKGROUND
On January 4, 2005, a search was conducted of Vega's cell in
the Special Housing Unit by Senior Officer Simpler. Vega shared
this cell with another inmate, Robert Dunifun. Apparently, the
bunk mattresses were removed during the course of the search and
mechanically scanned for contraband. The scan revealed three
weapons located in a hole in the top bunk mattress: an altered
half of a pair of scissors, a broken piece of metal from
eyeglasses that was sharpened to a point, and a piece of metal
wrapped with orange string. Incident reports were issued to both
inmates. A copy of his incident report was delivered to Vega the
On January 5, 2005, Vega appeared before the Unit Discipline
Committee ("UDC"). Vega received and signed a copy of the "Inmate
Rights at Discipline Hearing" form. He also signed the form
designated "Notice of Discipline Hearing Before the DHO." On that
form, Vega indicated that he wanted staff representation, Dr.
Mitchell, for the hearing but did not want any witnesses. (Doc.
18-2, Ex. 1, Attach. C.) The UDC referred the charge to the DHO
for further hearing. (Id., Ex. 1, Attach. B.) On January 11, 2005, a disciplinary hearing was conducted. Dr.
Mitchell, Psychologist, appeared on Vega's behalf as requested.
Vega did not request the appearance of any witnesses, as
reflected in the DHO report. He was advised of his rights and
indicated his understanding of the same. At the hearing, Vega
simply denied the charge claiming that none of the confiscated
weapons were his.
On January 19, 2004, after consideration of all available
evidence, including the incident report, photographs of the
weapons, and Vega's statement, the DHO issued his written
decision finding Vega guilty of the prohibited act of possession
of a weapon. (Id., Ex. 1, Attach. D; Doc. 1, Compl., Ex. "B".)
In reaching his decision the DHO found the greater weight of the
evidence to support Vega's guilt. He cited to the fact that Vega
resided in the SHU cell for 16 days prior to the discovery of the
items. Vega was sanctioned to 32 days loss of good conduct time,
30 days in disciplinary segregation, and a 3 month loss of
commissary privileges. (Id.)
Vega thereafter appealed the DHO decision through the
appropriate grievance channels. He was unsuccessful at each
level. He files the instant petition seeking relief which
includes the restoration of good conduct time and the expungement
of the incident report. In the petition, he alleges that his due
process rights were violated during the course of the
disciplinary hearing when his request to take a picture of his
cellmate's eyeglasses was denied and when the DHO refused to
allow him to call witnesses and present material evidence.
A habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 is the
proper mechanism for a federal prisoner to challenge the "fact or duration" of his
confinement. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-99 (1973).
A violation of a prisoner's liberty interest may be addressed by
a writ of habeas corpus only to the extent that the alleged
violation impacts a prisoner's length of confinement. See
Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974). Vega's claim that his
due process rights have been violated, and that the violation has
resulted in the imposition of the sanction of loss of good
conduct time, which lengthens his prison term, is properly
brought in a habeas corpus petition.
The Bureau of Prisons' ("BOP") disciplinary process is fully
outlined in Code of Federal Regulations, Title 28, Sections
541.10 through 541.23. These regulations dictate the manner in
which disciplinary action may be taken should a prisoner violate,
or attempt to violate, institutional rules. The first step
requires filing an incident report and conducting an
investigation pursuant to 28 C.F.R. § 541.14. Staff is required
to conduct the investigation promptly unless circumstances beyond
the control of the investigator intervene. 28 C.F.R. § 541.14(b).
Following the investigation, the matter is then referred to the
UDC for a hearing pursuant to 28 C.F.R. § 541.15. If the UDC
finds that a prisoner has committed a prohibited act, it may
impose minor sanctions. If the alleged violation is serious and
warrants consideration for more than minor sanctions, or involves
a prohibited act listed in the greatest severity category, the
UDC must refer the matter to a disciplinary hearing officer for a
hearing. 28 C.F.R. § 541.15. Because Vega was charged with an
offense in the greatest severity category, the matter was referred for a disciplinary hearing.
Greatest severity category offenses carry a possible sanction
of loss of good conduct time credits, inter alia.
28 C.F.R. § 541.13. When a prison disciplinary hearing may result in the loss
of good conduct time credits, due process requires that the
prisoner receive: (1) written notice of the claimed violation at
least twenty-four hours in advance of the hearing, (2) an
opportunity to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in
his or her defense when doing so would not be unduly hazardous to
institutional safety or correctional goals, and (3) a written
statement by the factfinder as to evidence relied on and reasons
for the disciplinary action. See Wolff, 418 U.S. at 564. All
indications from the record are that the BOP afforded Vega these
protections. There is no question and Vega does not argue that he
was not provided notice of the violation at least twenty-four
hours in advance of the hearing. In fact, he was given notice the
same day the incident occurred. He also does not contest the fact
that he was provided a written statement by the DHO as to the
evidence relied on and setting forth the reasons for the
Vega does claim, however, that he was not afforded the
opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence. There is no
evidence in the record that Vega requested the presentation of
any material evidence or witnesses. In fact, on the "Notice of
Discipline Hearing Before the DHO" form and at the DHO hearing,
Vega noted that he did not wish to submit evidence or have
witnesses. (Doc. 18-2, Ex. 1, Attach. C, D.) Further, while Vega
claims that his request to take a picture of his cellmate's
eyeglasses was wrongly denied, there is no evidence in the record that Vega requested the taking of any pictures. In
addition, photographs of the three items found in Vega's SHU cell
were presented at the DHO hearing and considered by the DHO.
(Id., Ex. 1, Attach, D.) In making this argument Vega
apparently sought to argue that the one weapon was made using
part of his cellmate's eyeglasses and therefore this would
implicate his cellmate as the offender with regard to this
incident. However, even if a picture of his cellmate's glasses
had been offered as evidence by Vega, this certainly would not
have exonerated him in any way in that he too had access to the
eyeglasses. Based on the foregoing, all indications from the
record support the conclusion that Vega was afforded the required
due process protections in this case.*fn2
Vega also challenges the sufficiency of the evidence based upon
the fact that he shared his SHU cell with another inmate. He
argues that the evidence points to his cellmate because the
weapons were found in a hole in the bottom of his bunk mattress.
The disciplinary hearing officer's decision is required to be
supported by "some evidence" in the record. See Superintendent
v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 454 (1985); see also Young v. Kann,
926 F.2d 1396, 1402-03 (3d Cir. 1991) (applying Hill standard
to federal prisoner due process challenges to prison disciplinary
Determining whether this standard is met does not require
examination of the entire record, independent assessment of
witness credibility, or weighing of the evidence; the relevant question is whether there is any evidence in the record that
could support the disciplinary hearing officer's conclusion.
See Hill, 472 U.S. at 454. In considering the evidence, as
recited in the statement of facts section, supra, the court
finds that there was "some evidence" to support the disciplinary
hearing officer's decision. "The fundamental fairness guaranteed
by the Due Process Clause does not require courts to set aside
decisions of prison administrators that have some basis in
fact. . . . [No] other standard greater than some evidence
applies in this context." Id. at 455-56. Under the
doctrine of constructive possession, Vega and his cellmate are
responsible for contraband found in their cell. See generally
White v. Kane, 860 F.Supp. 1075, 1079 & n. 5 (E.D. Pa.
1994).*fn3 Vega was assigned to the SHU cell where the
contraband was found and he had access to the area where the
contraband was found. Clearly, there existed "some evidence" in
the DHO's report to find the prohibited act was committed by
Vega. The sanctions imposed by the DHO were also within the range
permitted. Accordingly, the instant petition for writ of habeas
corpus will be denied. An appropriate Order is attached. ORDER
NOW, THIS 22nd DAY OF NOVEMBER, 2005, in accordance with the
accompanying Memorandum, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED AS FOLLOWS:
1. The petition for writ of habeas corpus is denied.
2. Petitioner's motions seeking the appointment of
counsel (Docs. 4, 16) are denied.
3. The Clerk of Court is directed to close this case.
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