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Lian v. Holt

April 13, 2006

HUNG LIAN, PETITIONER
v.
RONNIE HOLT, RESPONDENT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge McClure

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Background

Hung Lian ("Petitioner"), an inmate presently confined at the Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institution, Minersville, Pennsylvania ("FCI-Schuylkill"), initiated this pro se habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241. Named as sole Respondent is FCI-Schuylkill Warden Ronnie Holt. Service of the petition was previously ordered.

Petitioner states that he is presently serving a 240 month term of incarceration which was imposed by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. He states that on May 20, 2005, "a minuscule quantity of drugs were found in Petitioner's cell living area under the most suspicious of circumstances."*fn1 Record document no. 1, Attachment, p. 2. As a result, Lian was issued a misconduct report charging him with possession of drugs. Following a hearing before Disciplinary Hearing Officer ("DHO") Kevin Bittenbender, Petitioner was found guilty of the charge and issued various sanctions, including a loss of fifty-four (54) days of good time credits.

Petitioner initially claims that the DHO's finding of guilt was not supported by the evidence because another prisoner has taken responsibility for the drugs. Lian next asserts that since the packet of drugs was not dusted for fingerprints, an adequate internal investigation was not undertaken by FCI-Schuylkill officials. Petitioner adds that DHO Bittenbender failed to give proper consideration to the fact he did not have a positive urine test. Furthermore, Lian argues that like other recent similar suspicious events, the search of his cell was prompted by an anonymous dropped note.*fn2 Thus, he concludes that in light of the circumstances surrounding the search it is apparent that the drugs were planted in his cell by correctional staff members. His final argument is that the DHO Bittenbender, completely disregarded his testimony.

Discussion

The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides in pertinent part: "No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . ." The Supreme Court has mandated a two-part analysis of a procedural due process claim: first, "whether the asserted individual interests are encompassed within the . . . protection of 'life, liberty or property[,]'" and second, "if protected interests are implicated, we then must decide what procedures constitute 'due process of law.'" Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 672 (1977). If there is no protected liberty or property interest, it is obviously unnecessary to analyze what procedures were followed when an alleged deprivation of an interest occurred. Liberty interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment may arise either from the Due Process Clause itself or from state law. Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 223-26 (1976).

In Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 563-73 (1974), prisoners were deprived of good time credits as a severe sanction for serious misconduct, the Supreme Court held that such inmates have various procedural due process protections in a prison disciplinary proceeding. The Supreme Court recognized in Wolff that "prison disciplinary proceedings are not part of a criminal prosecution and the full panoply of rights due a defendant in such proceedings does not apply." Id. at 556. Nonetheless, the Court held that a prisoner facing serious institutional sanctions such as a loss of good time credits is entitled to some procedural protection before penalties can be imposed. Id. at 563-71.

Wolff set forth five requirements of due process in a prison disciplinary proceeding: (1) the right to appear before an impartial decision-making body; (2) twenty-four hour advance written notice of the charges; (3) an opportunity to call witnesses and present documentary evidence, provided the presentation of such does not threaten institutional safety or correctional goals; (4) assistance from an inmate representative, if the charged inmate is illiterate or if complex issues are involved; (5) a written decision by the fact finders as to the evidence relied upon and the rationale behind their disciplinary action. Id. An additional procedural requirement was set forth in Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Inst. at Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 453-56 (1985). In that case, the Court held that there must be some evidence which supports the conclusion of the disciplinary tribunal. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Griffin v. Spratt, 969 F.2d 16, 19 (3d Cir. 1992), thereafter recognized that the above due process requirements must be satisfied in a prison disciplinary hearing.

In Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 480-84 (1995), the United States Supreme Court reiterated that the Wolff due process safeguards must be provided when, as in the instant case, the challenged disciplinary proceeding results in a loss of good time credits. See also Young v. Kann, 926 F.2d 1396, 1399 (3d Cir. 1991) (a federal prisoner has a constitutionally protected liberty interest in good time credit). Since Lian was sanctioned to a loss of good time credits, his allegations relating to his underlying disciplinary proceeding will be reviewed under the Wolff and Hill standards.

1. Staff Representation

Wolff provides inmates the right to be provided with a representative, however, it does not mandate that a prisoner has the right to be afforded a staff representative of his choosing. It is noted that Lian's present action does not allege that he was denied staff representation at his DHO hearing. Moreover, the undisputed record provides that Petitioner asked to be represented by a staff member at his hearing. The request was approved and Counselor M. Barlow was appointed to represent the Petitioner. Barlow met with Lian to discuss the charge and was thereafter present at the prisoner's hearing before the DHO.

2. Advance Notice/Written Decision

Under Wolff, it is required that an inmate accused of a disciplinary infraction be provided with twenty four (24) hour advance written notice of the charges against him. The present petition contains no allegation that the advance notice mandate of Wolff was violated. Second, the undisputed record confirms, ...


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