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Melton v. Beard

IN THE COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


October 2, 2009

ARNOLD MELTON, ANTHONY LOCKE, JOHN DIAZ, LAMONT C. BULLOCK, JOHN PASSMORE, TARIK BRIGGS, JOSEPH HOLQUIN, JUSTIN LEE CLEMENS, TYRONE SANDERS
v.
JEFFREY A. BEARD, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS AND JOHN PALAKOVICH, SUPERINTENDENT OF THE SCI-SMITHFIELD
APPEAL OF: JOHN DIAZ AND LAMONT C. BULLOCK

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, President Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, this 2nd day of October, 2009, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the above-captioned opinion filed July 21, 2009, shall be designated OPINION rather than MEMORANDUM OPINION and it shall be reported.

SUBMITTED: May 15, 2009

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge, HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge

OPINION

FILED: July 21, 2009

John Diaz and Lamont C. Bullock (collectively "inmates") appeal pro se from the February 4, 2008 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Huntingdon County (trial court) that sustained the preliminary objections of prison officials Jeffrey A. Beard, Ph.D., Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and John Palakovich, former Superintendent at SCI-Smithfield, and dismissed the inmates' complaint. We affirm.

The background of this case is as follows. In August 2007, the inmates filed a complaint against the prison officials challenging the constitutionality of Department of Corrections' policy DC-ADM 801, entitled "Inmate Discipline Policy." The inmates alleged that the policy was void for vagueness and violated the Due Process clauses of both the United States and the Pennsylvania Constitutions. They averred that prison officials cited them with various misconducts, that they received disciplinary custody as a result of those charges and that the hearing examiner arbitrarily denied their requests to present witnesses and evidence. Finally, they requested compensatory and punitive damages.

In October 2007, the prison officials filed preliminary objections to the complaint in the nature of a demurrer, alleging that the inmates failed to state a claim against them. The trial court sustained the prison officials' demurrer and dismissed the action. The inmates' timely appeal to this Court followed.*fn1

The inmates argue that the trial court erred in sustaining the prison officials' preliminary objections because the facts alleged in the complaint, the documents on file and all logical inferences deducible therefrom establish that the Inmate Discipline Policy fails to comply with 37 Pa. Code § 93.10(a) requiring the Department to establish "[r]ules which define expectations and prohibitions for inmate behavior." Specifically, they maintain that the policy is non-compliant because it sets forth fifty-two misconduct charges, fifty-one of which have no definitions. They note that the United States Supreme Court has held that it is a basic principle of due process that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104 (1972). Further, they note that courts have demanded definitional sections in order to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Commonwealth v. Mayfield, 564 Pa. 460, 832 A.2d 418 (2003).

In response, the prison officials acknowledge that, under the void-for-vagueness doctrine, a statute must define unlawful conduct with sufficient definiteness to enable an ordinary person to understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Commonwealth v. Hendrickson, 555 Pa. 277, 724 A.2d 315 (1999). They argue, however, that the trial court correctly determined that the doctrine applies only to penal statutes and not to schemes for prison discipline. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974); Mayfield. If we conclude that the doctrine does apply to the Inmate Discipline Policy, then the prison officials maintain that the policy is not void for vagueness because it sufficiently defines what constitutes a violation for purposes of inmate conduct.

We agree that the trial court did not err in concluding that the void-for-vagueness doctrine applies only to penal statutes. Notwithstanding the inapplicability of the doctrine to the disciplinary policy, however, we agree with the trial court that a person of ordinary intelligence could decipher the nature of the misconducts of the two inmates who filed this appeal, so, without addressing all possible applications of the policy, it is not void for vagueness as to them.*fn2 In their complaint, the inmates averred that prison officials charged and punished Diaz for escape, a criminal violation of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code and possession of contraband. Paragraph 19; Supplemental Reproduced Record "S.R.R." 11b. They averred that officials charged and punished Bullock for refusing to obey an order, lying to an employee and threatening an employee. Para. 20; S.R.R. 11b.

Moreover, we note, as did the trial court, that there are procedures in place under the policy requiring service upon an inmate of a copy of the misconduct report setting forth the factual basis upon which the charges are based. In other words, the policy mandates that an inmate be apprised of the conduct alleged to have violated the policy. Accordingly, we conclude that the record establishes that the inmates were adequately given notice of their conduct that violated the policy.

The inmates next contend that the trial court erred in not addressing their contention that they suffered a denial of due process of law during their disciplinary hearings. They note that the United States Supreme Court in Wolff ruled that inmates are entitled to numerous due process protections in disciplinary proceedings. In Sinde v. Gerlinski, 252 F. Supp. 2d 144, 149 (M.D. Pa. 2003), the Court listed the Wolff protections:

(1) the inmate must receive no less than twenty-four hours advance written notice of the claimed violations; (2) the inmate must receive a written statement of the fact finder as to the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the disciplinary action taken; (3) the inmate must be allowed to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in his defense, when permitting him to do so will not be unduly hazardous to institutional safety or correctional goals; (4) the inmate must be allowed to seek the aid of a fellow inmate or staff member; and (5) the disciplinary hearings must be impartial. Wolff v. McDonnell, [418 U.S. 539, 564-70 (1974).] According to the Court, however, confrontation and cross- examination are not constitutional requirements in a disciplinary hearing. Id. at 567.

Relying on Wolff, the inmates allege that they were not afforded full and fair hearings before an impartial tribunal. They make general allegations that the disciplinary policy allowed the hearing examiner to "deny all request[s] for witnesses, to present evidence and documentary evidence," to base his decision on hearsay, specifically the misconduct report, and to use an inappropriate standard of proof.

In response, the prison officials acknowledge the applicability of Wolff, but maintain that the policy complies with all of its requirements.*fn3

Additionally, they point out that an inmate's due process rights in the context of disciplinary hearings are limited. We agree that an inmate simply does not enjoy the same panoply of procedural rights afforded a criminal defendant. As noted above, the right of confrontation does not apply in a disciplinary hearing, so hearsay may be relied upon. In addition, disciplinary actions need only be supported by some evidence. Superintendent v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 454-55 (1985). Finally, with respect to the right to present evidence, the inmates' conclusory allegations do not make clear whether they are simply challenging the policy itself, which allows discretion to the hearing examiner to grant or deny a request for witnesses,*fn4 whether they were claiming they could not prepare a defense because the charges were not sufficiently defined (a claim we have already rejected)*fn5 or whether a request to offer witnesses was actually made and denied. Reading the claim in the context of the entire complaint and the responses to preliminary objections, the last alternative seems unlikely. At all events, there is no allegation that any particular evidence or witness was requested or denied, and the conclusory allegations asserted are simply insufficient to survive the prison officials' demurrer.

We note that in determining whether to sustain the prison officials' preliminary objections, the trial court was not obliged to accept the inmates' conclusions of law or expressions of opinion that they suffered a deprivation of due process by virtue of the hearing examiner's treatment or rulings in their respective misconduct proceedings. Commonwealth v. Richmond Twp., 917 A.2d 397 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007) (court considering preliminary objections need not accept conclusions of law or expressions of opinion). Accordingly, we reject the inmates' contention regarding the lack of due process at their disciplinary proceedings.

For the above reasons, we affirm.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 21st day of July, 2009, the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Huntingdon County in the above captioned matter is hereby AFFIRMED.

BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge


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