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Estrada v. Williamson

June 13, 2006

GEORGE ESTRADA, PETITIONER
v.
TROY WILLIAMSON, RESPONDENT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge McClure)

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Background

George Estrada ("Petitioner"), an inmate presently confined at the Allenwood United States Penitentiary, White Deer, Pennsylvania ("USP-Allenwood"), initiated this pro se habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241. Named as sole Respondent is USP-Allenwood Warden Troy Williamson. Service of the petition was previously ordered.

Estrada states that while incarcerated at the Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution, White Deer, Pennsylvania ("FCI-Allenwood") on March 22, 2005, he was issued an incident report. Specifically, the Petitioner was charged with insolence towards a staff member and threatening another with bodily injury or any other offense. Petitioner states that on the above date he approached Unit Manager Levi in the prison's dining hall during the noon meal and asked why his prison job had been changed. Estrada admits that during the ensuing conversation, his tone of voice became "loud and boisterous" and that each time he yelled he stepped towards Levi. See Record document no. 1, p. 3. According to the petition, other staff members intervened and when Estrada failed to comply with orders to settle down, he was escorted from the dining hall and taken to the Special Housing Unit ("SHU").

Levi then prepared an incident report setting forth the above described charges. Later that same day, Lieutenant Farmer initiated an investigation into the incident which included interviews with Estrada and an eyewitness, Lieutenant Litchard. Upon conclusion of the investigation, Farmer prepared a written report which concluded that Petitioner's actions could have been interpreted as a threat. A Unit Disciplinary Committee ("UDC") hearing was convened on March 30, 2005. The UDC referred the charges to the Disciplinary Hearing Officer ("DHO") for further proceedings.

A disciplinary hearing before DHO K. Bittenbender was convened on April 7, 2005. DHO Bittenbender determined that upon consideration of Petitioner's size, mannerisms, movements, and tone of voice during the incident, it was proper to interpret prisoner's actions as constituting a threat. As a result, he found Estrada guilty of both charges and sanctioned him to a thirty (30) day term of disciplinary segregation, a one (1) year loss of telephone and visiting privileges, a twenty-one (21) day loss of good conduct time and a sixty (60) day loss of non-vested good conduct time.

Petitioner's present action asserts that Bureau of Prison ("BOP") regulations fail to specify what type of conduct constitutes threatening another with bodily harm or any other offense. Second, Estrada contends that the underlying facts do not support DHO Bittenbender's arbitrary determination that he threatened Unit Manager Levi because there was no communicated intent to injure. The Petitioner also maintains that his due process rights were violated because a UDC hearing was not held within the time period authorized under BOP regulations.

Discussion

It is well-settled that a habeas corpus petition may be brought by a prisoner who seeks to challenge either the fact or duration of his confinement in prison. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973), Telford v. Hepting, 980 F.2d 745, 748 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 920 (1993). Federal habeas corpus review is available only "where the deprivation of rights is such that it necessarily impacts the fact or length of detention." Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 540 (3d Cir. 2002).

The alleged unconstitutional actions taken by federal prison officials occurred with regards to institutional disciplinary proceedings. Since those proceedings resulted in the forfeiture of good time credits which extended the length of Estrada's incarceration, his present claims are properly raised before this Court.

Disciplinary Hearing

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), where the plaintiffs 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 ...


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