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SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

Hollis Staggs #258545 vs. SCDOC

South Carolina Department of Corrections

Hollis Staggs #258545

South Carolina Department of Corrections





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 Hollis Staggs appeals the decision of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC or Department) to revoke 180 days of his "good-time" credit as punishment for testing positive for the use of marijuana and possessing contraband money in violation of DOC Disciplinary Code §§ 1.10, The Use or Possession of Narcotics, Marijuana, or Unauthorized Drugs, Including Prescription Drugs, and 2.04, Possession of Contraband, respectively. 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.


On March 27, 2000, Sergeant D. Keatly found three one-dollar bills wrapped in tape and taped under Appellant's standing wall locker in a common living area. Later that same day, Appellant was given the urine-based Ontrak Test, which tests for the presence of marijuana, by Sergeant Keatly. Appellant tested positive for marijuana on the test, and was given a second test for confirmation that also returned a positive result for marijuana. Accordingly, Appellant was charged with the possession of contraband and the use of marijuana. At the hearing of these charges, Appellant pled guilty to the possession of the contraband money, and a DOC Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO) found Appellant guilty of the use of marijuana. As punishment for these violations, the DHO revoked Appellant's 180 days of good-time credit, 90 days for each offense. Appellant appealed the latter conviction to the Department, and then to this tribunal. On appeal, Appellant argues: (1) that the revocation of 90 days of good-time credit for his use of marijuana violates his due process rights because it exceeds the sentence set forth in S.C. Code Ann. § 44-53-370(d)(3) (Supp. 2000) for the possession of marijuana; (2) that his conviction is not supported by the evidence because the Department failed to produce physical evidence of his drug test at the hearing; and (3) that the Department's decision to twice revoke 90 days of good-time credit for the "same conduct" violates the Department's policies.


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 180 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 and that he waived his right to have that notice provided in excess of twenty-four hours prior to his hearing. A hearing on these charges 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 his accuser. The record reflects that Appellant was found guilty of violating DOC Disciplinary Code § 1.10, The Use or Possession of Narcotics, Marijuana, or Unauthorized Drugs, Including Prescription Drugs, and DOC Disciplinary Code § 2.04, Possession of Contraband, based on the testimony of Sergeant Keatly and Appellant's guilty plea, 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 remaining arguments must also fail. First, it is irrelevant that the 90 days of good-time credit the Department revoked from Appellant as punishment for using marijuana exceeds the 30-day maximum sentence for a first conviction for the possession of less than 28 grams of marijuana under Section 44-53-370(d)(3). Appellant was properly charged with a violation of, and punished under, the DOC's Disciplinary Code, not Section 44-53-370. Further, it must be recognized that prison disciplinary offenses and the punishments imposed for violations of them do not, and need not, correspond to provisions in non-prison-related criminal statutes. See, e.g., DOC Disciplinary Code § 2.16, Out of Place; DOC Disciplinary Code § 3.04, Malingering; see also Wolff, 418 U.S. at 560-563 (drawing a distinction between prison disciplinary proceedings and proceedings outside the prison system, such as criminal trials and parole revocation hearings). Second, the Department's failure to produce physical evidence of Appellant's drug test at the hearing does not render the conviction invalid. The testimony of Sergeant Keatly, the person who administered the drug test, is sufficient evidence to support the DHO's finding that Appellant tested positive for using marijuana; moreover, the production of physical evidence is generally not required at an inmate disciplinary hearing. See, e.g., Barker v. State, 437 So. 2d 1375 (Ala. Crim. App. 1983). Third, the Department clearly has not punished Appellant twice for the "same conduct." Rather, the two revocations of 90 days of good-time credit were imposed for two separate offenses, namely Appellant's use of marijuana and his possession of contraband money.

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.



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.

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