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Dantzler v. Wetzel

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

September 19, 2019

Albert Dantzler, Petitioner
John Wetzel, Zachary Moslak, Barry Smith, F. Nunez, Respondents

          Submitted: June 5, 2019




         Before this Court are the preliminary objections of John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), Superintendent Barry R. Smith, State Correctional Institution (SCI)-Houtzdale (Superintendent Smith), Acting Chief Hearing Examiner Zachary Moslak (Moslak) and Hearing Examiner F. Nunez (Nunez) (collectively, Respondents) to a petition for review (Petition) filed by inmate Albert Dantzler (Dantzler). Dantzler, representing himself, claims Respondents violated his state due process rights by punishing him for possessing a DOC-issued belt, which Respondents deemed to be contraband. Upon review, we sustain Respondents' preliminary objections and dismiss the Petition, with prejudice.

         I. Background

         Through his Petition, Dantzler set forth the following facts. While Dantzler was serving his sentence at SCI-Fayette, DOC issued him a belt. In December 2017, DOC transferred Dantzler to SCI-Houtzdale as a promotional transfer. The transfer was conditioned on Dantzler serving his first six months at SCI-Houtzdale without any infractions. Prior to the transfer, Dantzler's property was searched and deemed to be contraband-free. Dantzler's property was also inspected after his arrival at SCI-Houtzdale. Again, his property was found to be devoid of contraband.

         Dantzler's cell at SCI-Houtzdale was searched twice in January 2018. Neither search yielded any contraband. At some point, DOC revised its policies regarding inmate clothing, causing Dantzler's belt to be deemed impermissible contraband. DOC did so without notifying Dantzler that its policies changed.

         In April 2018, Corrections Officer D. Smith (Officer Smith) confronted Dantzler and informed him that he was not permitted to possess the belt. Officer Smith confiscated the belt and ordered Dantzler to return to his housing unit. Dantzler received a misconduct report for possession of contraband, the belt. As a result, he was called before his unit shift commander at SCI-Houtzdale for resolution of the matter. However, Dantzler elected to request a formal hearing through DOC's prisoner grievance system.

         In May 2018, Nunez, a DOC hearing examiner, held a hearing. At the hearing, Dantzler pled not guilty, stating, "[w]hen [Officer Smith] gave me a receipt for [the belt], I told him I've had that belt since I transferred [to SCI-Houtzdale] …." Pet. for Review, Ex. D. However, Nunez found Officer Smith's written report regarding the incident more credible than Dantzler's version of events, determining a preponderance of the evidence supported Officer Smith's claim that Dantzler possessed contraband. Thus, Nunez found Dantzler guilty, imposed a sanction of 30 days' cell restriction, and ordered the belt revoked as contraband. Dantzler appealed to DOC's Program Review Committee (PRC).

         Through this appeal, Dantzler argued he was never informed that the DOC-issued belt was contraband and there was no preexisting documentation establishing it was impermissible for him to possess the belt. Additionally, Dantzler asserted Nunez should not have refused to admit evidence that Dantzler offered, nor "relied solely on the word of [Officer Smith]." Pet. for Review, Ex. E. Dantzler argued Nunez could not have properly found him "guilty of possession of contraband for an item that was issued to [him] by [DOC], especially when there is no documentation stating that the item [is] no longer permissible for [him] to retain prior to the [misconduct] in question." Id.

         The PRC upheld Nunez's decision, concluding Nunez "adequately document[ed]" his findings in a manner that was "sufficient to support the decision[,]" and "no violations of law, [DOC] directive[s], or regulation[s]" occurred. Pet. for Review, Ex. F. The PRC observed Nunez had authority to impose various sanctions, including up to 90 days' disciplinary custody for each misconduct charge for which an inmate is found guilty or pleads guilty. However, Nunez elected to impose a more lenient sanction, which the PRC found was "proportionate to the indicated offense." Id.

         Dantzler appealed the PRC's decision to Superintendent Smith, who denied the appeal, stating Dantzler's claim pertaining to lack of notice "has no relevance to this appeal. … The facts of the incident remain that you were in possession of an item deemed contraband by policy. You are responsible for any and all items in your possession." Pet. for Review, Ex. H. Superintendent Smith determined Dantzler was properly charged with, and punished for, possession of contraband, finding no error with the manner in which Nunez or the PRC disposed of the matter.

         Thereafter, Dantzler filed his final administrative appeal from Superintendent Smith's decision to Moslak, reiterating his previously raised arguments. Moslak denied Dantzler's appeal.

         In July 2018, Dantzler filed his Petition with this Court, claiming Respondents' actions violated his due process rights under Article I, Section 25 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.[2] On that basis, Dantzler seeks: (1) a declaratory judgment that Respondents violated his rights; (2) expungement of his misconduct citation or, alternatively, a disciplinary hearing that complies with DOC regulations and procedures; (3) compensation from DOC for the days he was removed from his work assignment because of the misconduct at issue; and (4) compensation from DOC for costs he incurred as a result of pursuing this action. Dantzler raises no claims based on federal law.

         Respondents filed preliminary objections to the Petition, asserting this Court should dismiss the Petition. First, according to Respondents, this Court cannot exercise appellate jurisdiction to the extent Dantzler seeks to challenge prior misconduct procedures. Additionally, Respondents argue, this Court cannot exercise original jurisdiction as Dantzler did not show he possessed a legally cognizable liberty interest and, as a result, he was not entitled to due process at the misconduct hearing.[3]

         II. Discussion

         A. Appellate Jurisdiction

         Initially, we agree with Respondents that this Court lacks jurisdiction, in our appellate capacity, to consider Dantzler's Petition. Specifically, "[i]nmate misconducts are a matter of internal prison management and, thus, do not constitute adjudications subject to appellate review." Hill v. Dep't of Corr., 64 A.3d 1159, 1167 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013). Thus, to the extent Dantzler seeks appellate review of DOC's misconduct proceedings and his conviction for possession of contraband, we sustain Respondents' demurrer. Id.

         B. ...

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