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SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
Mark Dixon #258299 vs. SCDOC

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Corrections

PARTIES:
Appellant:
Mark Dixon #258299

Respondent:
South Carolina Department of Corrections
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
00-ALJ-04-00494-AP

APPEARANCES:
n/a
 

ORDERS:

ORDER
GRIEVANCE NO. KER 0166-00

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

This matter comes before the Administrative Law Judge Division (ALJD or Division) pursuant to the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court in Al-Shabazz v. State, 338 S.C. 354, 527 S.E.2d 742 (2000). Appellant Mark Dixon appeals the decision of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC or Department) to revoke 34 days of his "good-time" credit and to order him to pay $50.00 in restitution as punishment for cutting another inmate with a razor blade in violation of DOC Disciplinary Code § 1.05, Striking an Inmate With a Weapon. Having reviewed the record, applicable law, and the briefs filed by the parties in this matter, I conclude that the decision of the Department must be affirmed.

BACKGROUND

On February 17, 2000, a DOC Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO) found Appellant guilty of cutting another inmate on the face with a razor blade. At the hearing, Sergeant G. Jernigan testified that the victim identified Appellant as his attacker and that, when he went to question Appellant about the incident, he found fresh drops of blood throughout Appellant's cell and observed a fresh cut on the index finger of Appellant's right hand. Additionally, a written statement from the victim, in which he identifies Appellant as his assailant, was introduced at the hearing. This statement was signed by the victim and witnessed by Appellant's counsel substitute. Appellant denied cutting the victim and claimed that the cut on his hand was from an earlier game of basketball.

Appellant appealed his conviction to the Department, and then to this tribunal. On appeal, he contends that his due process rights have been violated on three grounds: (1) ineffective assistance of his counsel substitute, (2) bias, arbitrariness, and capriciousness on the part of his counsel substitute, the DHO, his warden, and DOC, and (3) denial of his right to confront his accuser.

ANALYSIS

In Al-Shabazz, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that inmates may seek review of final decisions of the Department in certain "non-collateral" or administrative matters (i.e., those matters in which an inmate does not challenge the validity of a conviction or sentence) by appealing those decisions to the ALJD pursuant to the South Carolina Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Al-Shabazz, 338 S.C. at 376, 527 S.E.2d at 754. In McNeil v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, a majority of the judges of the ALJD, sitting en banc, held that this tribunal's jurisdiction to hear inmate appeals under Al-Shabazz is limited to: (1) cases in which an inmate contends that prison officials have erroneously calculated his sentence, sentence-related credits, or custody status, and (2) cases in which the Department has taken an inmate's created liberty interest as punishment in a major disciplinary hearing. McNeil v. S.C. Dep't of Corrections, No. 00-ALJ-04-00336-AP, slip op. at 4-5 (S.C. Admin. Law Judge. Div. Sept. 5, 2001) (en banc). In the case at hand, Appellant contends that the Department improperly revoked 34 days of his good-time credit as punishment in a major disciplinary hearing; accordingly, this tribunal has jurisdiction over this matter.

When reviewing the Department's decisions in inmate grievance matters, the ALJD sits in an appellate capacity. Al-Shabazz, 338 S.C. at 377, 527 S.E.2d at 754. Consequently, this tribunal's review of inmate appeals is confined to the record presented, id., and its inquiry into these matters is primarily concerned with ensuring that the Department has granted aggrieved inmates the process they are due when their constitutional rights are implicated. Id. at 369, 527 S.E.2d at 750; McNeil, No. 00-ALJ-04-00336-AP, at 5 ("[O]ur review is limited solely to the determination of whether the Department granted 'minimal due process' in reaching [its] decisions . . . ."). Further, recognizing that prison officials are in the best position to decide inmate disciplinary matters, this tribunal will adhere to the traditional "hands off" approach to internal prison disciplinary policies and procedures when reviewing inmate appeals under the APA. Al-Shabazz, 338 S.C. at 382, 527 S.E.2d at 757; see also Pruitt v. State, 274 S.C. 565, 266 S.E.2d 779 (1980) (stating the traditional "hands off" approach of South Carolina courts regarding internal prison discipline and policy). However, notwithstanding this deferential standard of review, this tribunal must conduct meaningful review of the Department's actions to ensure that inmate grievances are addressed in a fair, reasonable, and efficient manner. Al-Shabazz, 338 S.C. at 383, 527 S.E.2d at 757.

In the present case, Appellant contends that the Department's decision to revoke his good-time credit was made in violation of his due process rights. Because inmates have a protected liberty interest in their earned statutory good-time credits under the Fourteenth Amendment, they are entitled to "minimum procedures appropriate under the circumstances and required by the Due Process clause to insure that the state-created right is not arbitrarily abrogated." Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 557 (1974). Thus, where, as here, an inmate faces the revocation of good-time credits as punishment in a disciplinary hearing, prison officials must provide that inmate with certain procedural safeguards. Al-Shabazz, 338 S.C. at 370, 527 S.E.2d at 750. (1) These procedural safeguards include:

(1) that advance written notice of the charge be given to the inmate at least twenty-four hours before the hearing; (2) that factfinders must prepare a written statement of the evidence relied on and reasons for the disciplinary action; (3) that the inmate should be allowed to call witnesses and present documentary evidence, provided there is no undue hazard to institutional safety or correctional goals; (4) that counsel substitute (a fellow inmate or a prison employee) should be allowed to help illiterate inmates or in complex cases an inmate cannot handle alone; and (5) that the persons hearing the matter, who may be prison officials or employees, must be impartial.



Id. at 371, 527 S.E.2d at 751 (paraphrasing Wolff). Beyond these procedural requirements, the United States Supreme Court has held that the revocation of an inmate's good-time credits does not comport with Due Process unless "there [is] some evidence from which the conclusion of the [prison official] could be deduced." Superintendent, Mass. Corr. Inst. v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 455 (1985). (2) Thus, if the Department affords the inmate a Wolff-type hearing and has at least some evidence in the record to support its decision, the Department's revocation of an inmate's good-time credits satisfies the requirements of due process.

In the disciplinary proceedings underlying the instant appeal, Appellant was afforded all the process due him pursuant to Wolff and Al-Shabazz. The record indicates that Appellant received written notice of the charges against him in excess of twenty-four hours prior to a hearing that was held before an impartial Disciplinary Hearing Officer. At the hearing, Appellant was given the opportunity, through a counsel substitute, to offer evidence, call witnesses, and confront the charging officer. The record reflects that Appellant was found guilty of violating DOC Disciplinary Code § 1.05, Striking an Inmate With a Weapon, based on the testimony of Sergeant Jernigan and the statement of Appellant's victim, and a written statement to that effect was prepared by the hearing officer. After his conviction, Appellant filed a grievance and received a prompt response from his warden, which Appellant then appealed to the Department. In its denial of his appeal, the Department informed appellant of his right to appeal the Department's final decision under the APA. Further, there is some evidence in the record to support the decision reached by the Department.

Appellant's attacks on the Department's proceedings are unfounded. Appellant's contention that his right to effective assistance of counsel substitute was violated must fail "as there is no general right to counsel substitute in disciplinary proceedings, nor has [Appellant] demonstrated that he falls within the small class of inmates to whom the appointment of substitute counsel might be appropriate." Caldwell v. Vosburgh, No. 93-3366-SAC, 1996 WL 596740, at *3 (D. Kan. Sept. 17, 1996) (citations omitted). (3) Moreover, there is no evidence in the record to suggest that Appellant's counsel substitute was ineffective. Similarly, Appellant's claim that his counsel substitute, the DHO, his warden, and the Department harbored a bias against him and acted arbitrarily and capriciously is not supported by any evidence in the record. Appellant's assertion that he was improperly denied the right to confront his accuser must also fail. Appellant was allowed to confront the officer who brought the charges against him at the hearing, and the Department acted well within its discretion in deciding not to have his victim testify at the hearing. See Wolff, 418 U.S. at 568-69 (noting that, given the potential for disruption, the scope of an accused inmate's right to confront adverse witnesses is best left "to the sound discretion of the officials of state prisions").

The Department provided Appellant with the due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment before revoking his sentence-related credits as punishment in a disciplinary proceeding. Accordingly, the Department's decision to deny Appellant's grievance is affirmed.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the Department's denial of Appellant's grievance is AFFIRMED.

AND IT IS SO ORDERED.





JOHN D. GEATHERS

Administrative Law Judge



February 14, 2002

Columbia, South Carolina

1. However, this set of safeguards is necessarily a limited one. See Wolff, 418 U.S. at 560 ("[I]t is immediately apparent that one cannot automatically apply procedural rules designed for free citizens in an open society . . . to the very different situation presented by a disciplinary proceeding in a state prison.").

2. This review "does not require examination of the entire record, independent assessment of the credibility of witnesses, or weighing of the evidence," Hill, 472 U.S. at 455; rather, this standard only requires this tribunal to determine whether "there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion reached by the [prison official]." Id. at 455-56.

3. The appointment of counsel substitute is only appropriate where the accused inmate is illiterate or the issues involved in the proceeding are particularly complex. See Wolff, 418 U.S. at 570. Neither of these circumstances present themselves in the present case.


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