Absent a Clear Due Process Violation, the Correct Remedy for Failure to Explain Why a Witness Requested by the Inmate Did Not Testify (a Rule Violation) Is a New Hearing, Not Expungement
The Court of Appeals, in a full-fledged opinion by Judge Rivera, determined that, under the facts, the correct remedy for the failure to call a witness requested by the inmate at a disciplinary hearing was a new hearing, not expungement. The court explained the due process requirements in this context, and the requirements of the Department of Correctional and Community Services’ (DOCCS’) rules, which go beyond the due process requirements. Under the rules, if a requested witness in not called, the inmate must be given a written explanation for the witness’ absence. Due process does not require the prison officials to explain why a witness did not appear. Here, because, under the facts, there was a clear rule violation, but no clear due process violation, a new hearing, not expungement, was appropriate:
Petitioner was charged in a misbehavior report for violating prison disciplinary rules while an inmate at Attica Correctional Facility. At the Tier III disciplinary hearing, petitioner pleaded not guilty to all charges and requested several witnesses be called, including another inmate, T. However, T refused to testify, stating on his inmate witness refusal form that “I was never at Upstate ever. I came here from Attica!” Petitioner asked the hearing officer to re-contact T because his response indicated that he was confused about the location of the incident, which had occurred at Attica. The hearing officer agreed to have T re-interviewed. However, when the hearing reconvened T did not testify and the hearing officer did not state whether T had been re-contacted, and, if so, what he had said regarding the request to testify. The hearing officer, thereafter, found petitioner guilty of all charges, and respondent, the then Commissioner of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), administratively affirmed this disposition … . * * *
The United States Supreme Court in Wolff v McDonell , 418 US 539 (1974) held that inmates retain rights under the Federal Due Process Clause and are entitled to the minimum requirements for procedural due process, although those rights are subject to restrictions due to the nature of incarceration (id. at 556-58). Those minimal due process requirements include an inmate’s right in a disciplinary proceeding to call witnesses in the inmate’s defense, so long as “permitting [the inmate] to do so will not be unduly hazardous to institutional safety or correctional goals” (id. at 566). While noting its usefulness, the Supreme Court did not require that prison officials “state [their] reason for refusing to call a witness, whether it be for irrelevance, lack of necessity, or the hazards presented in individual cases” (id. ).
The right to call witnesses is codified in DOCCS regulations, which also provide additional protections above and beyond those minimum requirements for procedural due process recognized by the United States Supreme Court (see 7 NYCRR 254.5). For example, and as relevant to this appeal, section 254.5(a) states that an inmate may call a witness if the testimony is “material, is not redundant, and doing so does not jeopardize institutional safety or correctional goals. If permission to call a witness is denied, the hearing officer shall give the inmate a written statement stating the reasons for the denial, including the specific threat to institutional safety or correctional goals presented.” Matter of Texeira v Fischer, 2015 NY Slip Op 07783, CtApp 10-27-15