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Estrada v. Williamson

June 19, 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.*fn1 Service of the petition was previously ordered.

Petitioner states that he was incarcerated at the Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution, White Deer, Pennsylvania ("FCI-Allenwood") from December 18, 2004 to January 28, 2005. On December 21, 2004, Estrada was questioned by SIS Lieutenant Feltman who informed the prisoner that notes sent to the SIS office had implicated him in an assault of Inmate Lopez on December 18, 2004. Thereafter, Petitioner and Lopez were both placed in the prison's Special Housing Unit ("SHU").

On January 13, 2005, Estrada was issued an incident report which charged him with assaulting another person (Lopez).*fn2 Lieutenant Clarkson advised Petitioner of his rights on January 19, 2005 and asked if he wished to call any witnesses. A Unit Disciplinary Committee ("UDC") hearing was convened on January 20, 2005. The UDC referred the charges to the Disciplinary Hearing Officer ("DHO") for further proceedings.

A disciplinary hearing was convened on January 27, 2005. DHO K. Bittenbender found Estrada guilty of the assault charge and sanctioned him to a thirty (30) day term of disciplinary segregation, a one hundred and eighty (180) day 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 claims entitlement to federal habeas corpus relief on the grounds that the incident report was not timely issued in accordance with Bureau of Prison ("BOP") regulations. Specifically, Estrada asserts that as of December 21, 2004, Lieutenant Feltman had a reasonable belief that Petitioner had assaulted Lopez. However, the officer failed to issue an incident report within twenty-four (24) hours as required under BOP regulations. Second, Estrada contends that Lieutenant Clarkson did not adequately investigate the charge in accordance with BOP policy. The petition additionally argues that Clarkson violated due process by neglecting to sign his investigative report. Furthermore, Petitioner asserts that Clarkson's purported failure to investigate occurred because Lieutenant Feltman had already completed the investigation and thus, Feltman violated the BOP policy which prohibits the investigating officer from being the employee who reported the incident.

Discussion

A habeas corpus petition is the proper method by which a prisoner can 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). However, federal habeas corpus relief is only available if the alleged deprivation of rights negatively impacts the fact or length of detention. Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 540 (3d Cir. 2002).

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 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); Von Kahl, 855 F. Supp. at 1417. In conclusion, since Estrada was sanctioned to a loss of good time credits, his allegations relating to his underlying disciplinary proceeding are properly raised in a habeas corpus petition and will be reviewed under the Wolff and Hill standards.

It is initially noted that Petitioner does not contend that he requested but was denied assistance from an inmate representative.*fn3 Estrada also makes no claim that he was denied the opportunity to present witnesses or documentary evidence. Wolff also mandates the factfinder to be an impartial decision maker and to issue a written decision outlining the evidence relied upon and the rationale behind the disciplinary action. Petitioner does not claim that DHO Bittenbender was biased. There is also no contention or basis in the record establishing that the factfinder, DHO Bittenbender, failed to issue a written decision. On the contrary, a copy of Bittenbender's decision has been submitted by the Respondent. See Record document no. 7, Exhibit 1, Attachment D, p. 17. Thus, a discussion as to whether those four Wolff procedural prongs were satisfied is not required in this case.

Furthermore, the DHO's undisputed written decision states that during his disciplinary hearing, Estrada admitted to assaulting Inmate Lopez. See id. The findings in a disciplinary hearing are not arbitrary or capricious if there exists a basis in fact to support a disciplinary hearing officer's findings. Edwards v. White, 501 F. Supp. 8 (M.D. Pa. 1979). Certainly, in light of the Petitioner's ...


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