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Howell v. Castaneda

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

July 21, 2014

JACOB HOWELL, Petitioner,
v.
J. CASTANEDA, Respondent.

RAMBO JUDGE

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

MARTIN C. CARLSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

A. Introduction

In a prison disciplinary setting, inmates must be afforded certain basic due process protections. One of the fundamental requisites of due process in this setting is that a Disciplinary Hearing Officer, (DHO), must either consider potentially exculpatory evidence provided by an inmate or provide an adequate explanation of a refusal to examine potentially exculpatory evidence. Due process is not satisfied, however, if a DHO engages in a wholly unexplained failure to examine or consider such exculpatory evidence.

The instant case aptly illustrates this fundamental requirement of due process in a prison disciplinary setting. In this case, the petitioner, Jacob Howell, was accused of possessing two knives found in a common area of his cell. At the DHO hearing Howell presented substantial, exculpatory evidence to the DHO, asserting without contradiction that he could not have knowingly possessed these knives or introduced them into the cell since he had been moved into the cell, which had not been searched by correctional staff, the night before the weapons were discovered, and the cell was occupied by other inmates. Howell’s assertion that the knives could not have been his since he had just moved into the cell had a potentially persuasive exculpatory quality to it. Yet, this exculpatory information was never given meaningful consideration by the DHO. Indeed, the DHO’s opinion seems to have wholly misconstrued Howell’s statement, since the DHO concluded that Howell’s exculpatory statement in some way actually inculpated him.

Since the DHO decision in this case did not adequately address this potentially exculpatory evidence, for the reasons set forth below it is recommended that this petition be granted, in part, and this matter be remanded to the Bureau of Prisons with instructions that the disciplinary citation either be expunged, or Howell be afforded a DHO hearing in which his potentially exculpatory evidence is directly addressed.

B. DHO Proceedings

The pertinent facts can be simply stated:

The petitioner, Jacob Howell, is a federal prisoner who was housed at the Federal Correctional Institution, Schuylkill, in April of 2012. On the evening of April 12, 2012, Howell was moved by prison staff into cell 211, a cell previously occupied by other prisoners, and a cell that Howell now shared with another inmate. The following morning, the cell that Howell shared with another inmate was searched and the searching officer reported that:

On 4/13/2012 at 11:05 am, while shaking down cell 211, I discovered a 5 3/4 & 10 3/4 inch metal weapon located in the window fixture. The 5 3/4 inch weapon was a flattened piece of metal that was bent to a point and the 10 3/4 inch weapon was a silver piece of metal rod from an unknown source. The cell is also occupied by inmate BOWMAN #42372-060.

(Doc. 5-1, Ex. G.)

Prison officials cited Howell for possession of these weapons, and Howell immediately provided a exculpatory explanation to correctional staff, explaining that:

The report is false. It’s got to be false. I’m not looking to do nothing. I just moved in there the night before. I was in the common area for nine months. I understand I’m responsible for what’s in the cell. My cellmate said he ...

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