Inmate's pro se appeal overturns prison disciplinary finding

As a law student, I interned for a prisoners' rights office that, among other things, challenged the discipline meted out to inmates who were engaged in misconduct inside the prison. I learned that these adverse findings are difficult to challenge and that the hearings themselves are not the due process endeavors we associate with the outside world. Still, some inmates won their cases.

The case is In the Matter of Jackson v. Annucci, an Appellate Division ruling dated April 26. Here's how it works. When prison officials charge inmates with misconduct -- such as insubordination, fighting, whatever -- they are served with a misbehavior report. The inmate then gets a hearing where they are confronted with only some of the evidence against them. The inmate can also call witnesses. The inmates' rights often give way to security concerns. You can't call certain witnesses because that would disrupt jail operations, and there may be a confidential informant whose information will be used against you. That CI will not testify at the hearing, but the hearing officer has to make a determination that the CI is reliable. The inmate does not get a lawyer for these hearings. He has to defend himself.

In this case, the inmate was charged with using marijuana inside the prison. The inmate failed two urinalysis tests that tested positive for cannabinoids. It was also agreed upon by all parties that the inmate's medication produces false positives for cannabinoids in urinalysis tests. In ruling against the inmate, the hearing officer noted the positive urinalysis tests and a correction officer's testimony that he smelled the odor of marijuana near the inmate, who acted nervous and fidgety when asked about the odor. Other inmates were present in the outdoor area when the correction officer approached the inmate.

The Appellate Division overturns the hearing officer's findings against the inmate. The inmate handled this appeal pro se, by the way. The findings are not supported by "substantial evidence," the standard necessary to sustain adverse findings in the prison disciplinary context. Here is the reasoning:

Since the hearing officer stipulated that the petitioner’s medication produces false positives for cannabinoids in urinalysis tests, and since no evidence was submitted to contradict the petitioner’s evidence, the positive urinalysis tests results were of little probative value in establishing that the petitioner used cannabinoids. While the correction officer’s observations were sufficient to raise suspicion that the petitioner had violated the prison disciplinary rule, they were not adequate to reasonably support the conclusion that the petitioner had, in fact, violated the rule, especially since the correction officer’s detection of the marijuana odor was made outdoors where there were other inmates in the immediate vicinity of the petitioner. Accordingly, we find that the hearing officer’s determination was not supported by substantial evidence.