471 U.S. 491 (1985), 83-1329, Ponte v. Real

Docket Nº:No. 83-1329
Citation:471 U.S. 491, 105 S.Ct. 2192, 85 L.Ed.2d 553, 53 U.S.L.W. 4549
Party Name:Ponte v. Real
Case Date:May 20, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 491

471 U.S. 491 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 2192, 85 L.Ed.2d 553, 53 U.S.L.W. 4549

Ponte

v.

Real

No. 83-1329

United States Supreme Court

May 20, 1985

Argued January 9, 1985

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF

MASSACHUSETTS

Syllabus

Respondent, a Massachusetts prison inmate, as a result of a fight that occurred in a prison office, was charged with violation of prison regulations. At the hearing on these charges, the disciplinary board refused to allow respondent to call witnesses whom he had requested, but the record of the hearing does not indicate the board's reason for such refusal. The board found respondent guilty, and 150 days of his "good time" credits were forfeited. Respondent then sought a writ of habeas corpus in a Massachusetts trial court, which sustained his claim that petitioner prison Superintendent had deprived him of the due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, because petitioner advanced no reasons in court as to why respondent was not allowed to call the requested witnesses. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, holding that there must be some support in the administrative record to justify a decision not to call witnesses, and that, since the administrative record in this case contained no such support, the state regulations governing presentation of proof in disciplinary hearings were unconstitutional to the extent that they did not require the administrative record to contain reasons supporting the board's denial of an inmate's witness request.

Held: The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require that prison officials' reasons for denying an inmate's witness request appear in the administrative record of the disciplinary hearing. While the Due Process Clause does require that the officials at some point state their reasons for refusing to call witnesses, they may do so either by making the explanation part of the administrative record or by later presenting testimony in court if the deprivation of a "liberty" interest, such as that afforded by "good time" credits, is challenged because of the refusal to call the requested witnesses. Pp. 495-500.

390 Mass. 399, 456 N.E.2d 1111, vacated and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in all but the second paragraph of footnote 2 of which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, in Part II of which

Page 492

BLACKMUN, J., joined, post p. 501. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post p. 504. POWELL, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that a prison disciplinary hearing which forfeited "good time" credits of respondent John Real was conducted in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because there did not appear in the administrative record of that hearing a statement of reasons as to why the disciplinary board refused to allow respondent to call witnesses whom he had requested. Real v. Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Institution, Walpole, 390 Mass. 399, 456 N.E.2d 1111 (1983). We granted certiorari, 469 U.S. 814 (1984), to review this judgment because it seemed to us to go further than our pronouncement on this subject in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974). While we agree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that prison officials at some point state their reason for refusing to call witnesses requested by an [105 S.Ct. 2194] inmate at a disciplinary hearing, we disagree with that court that such reasons or support for reasons must be placed in writing or otherwise exist as a part of the administrative record at the disciplinary hearing. We vacate the judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court, and remand the case to that court.

In 1981, respondent John Real was an inmate at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Walpole. In December

Page 493

of that year, he was working in the prison metal shop and heard a commotion in an adjacent office. He entered the office and observed another prisoner fighting with a corrections officer. A second corrections officer attempted to break up the fight, and ordered respondent and other inmates who were watching to disperse immediately. Respondent did not depart, and another corrections officer escorted him to his cell.

One week later, respondent was charged with three violations of prison regulations as a result of this imbroglio. He notified prison officials, on a form provided for that purpose, that he wished to call four witnesses at the hearing which would be held upon these charges: two fellow inmates, the charging officer, and the officer who was involved in the fight. A hearing was held on the charges in February, 1982. At this hearing, the charging officer appeared and testified against respondent, but the board declined to call the other witnesses requested by respondent. Respondent was advised of no reason for the denial of his request to call the other witnesses, and apparently whatever record there may be of this disciplinary proceeding does not indicate the board's reason for declining to call the witnesses. The board found respondent guilty as charged, and, after an administrative appeal in which penalties were reduced, respondent received the sanction of 25 days in isolation and the loss of 150 days of good-time credits.

Respondent challenged these sanctions by seeking a writ of habeas corpus in the Massachusetts trial court. That court sustained respondent's claim that petitioner Joseph Ponte, a Superintendent of the M.C.I. at Walpole, had deprived him of that due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because no reasons whatsoever were advanced by petitioner in court as to why respondent was not allowed to call the requested witnesses at the hearing.

Page 494

On appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, this judgment was affirmed, but for different reasons. That court discussed our decision in Wolff v. McDonnell, supra, and noted that it

[l]eft unresolved . . . the question whether the Federal due process requirements impose a duty on the board to explain, in any fashion, at the hearing or later, why witnesses were not allowed to testify.

390 Mass. at 405, 456 N.E.2d at 1115. The court concluded that there must be some support in the "administrative record" to justify a decision not to call witnesses, and that the administrative record in this case was barren of any such support. Because of its conclusion, the court declared that the Massachusetts regulations governing the presentation of proof in disciplinary hearings, Mass.Admin.Code, Tit. 103, § 430.14 (1978)1 were unconstitutional as to this point, because those regulations did not [105 S.Ct. 2195] require that the administrative record contain

Page 495

facts or reasons supporting the board's denial of an inmate's witness request. 390 Mass. at 405-407, 456 N.E.2d at 1116, citing Hayes v. Thompson, 637 F.2d 483, 487-489 (CA7 1980).

Petitioner does not dispute that respondent possessed a "liberty" interest, by reason of the provisions of Massachusetts state law, affording him "good time" credits, an interest which could not be taken from him in a prison disciplinary hearing without the minimal safeguards afforded by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The touchstone of due process is freedom from arbitrary governmental action, Wolff, 418 U.S. at 558, but

[p]rison disciplinary proceedings are not part of a criminal prosecution, and the full panoply of rights due a defendant in such proceedings does not apply.

Id. at 556. Chief among the due process minima outlined in Wolff was the right of an inmate to call and present witnesses and documentary evidence in his defense before the disciplinary board. We noted in Wolff and repeated in Baxter v. Palmigiano, 425 U.S. 308 (1976), that ordinarily the right to present evidence is basic to a fair hearing, but the inmate's right to present witnesses is necessarily circumscribed by the penological need to provide swift discipline in individual cases. This right is additionally circumscribed by the very real dangers in prison life which may result from violence or intimidation directed at either other inmates or staff. We described the right to call witnesses as subject to the "mutual accommodation between institutional needs and objectives and the provisions of the Constitution. . . ." Baxter, supra, at 321, citing Wolff, supra, at 556.

Thus, the prisoner's right to call witnesses and present evidence in disciplinary hearings could be denied if granting the request would be "unduly hazardous to institutional safety or correctional goals." Wolff, supra, at 566; Baxter, supra, at 321. See also Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9, and n. 6 (1980). As we stated in Wolff:

Page 496

Prison officials must have the necessary discretion to keep the hearing within reasonable limits and to refuse to call witnesses that may create a risk of reprisal or undermine authority, as well as to limit access to other inmates to collect statements or to compile other documentary evidence. Although we do not prescribe it, it would be useful for the [disciplinary board] to state its reasons for refusing to call a witness, whether it be for irrelevance, lack of necessity, or the hazards presented in individual cases.

418 U.S. at 566. See Baxter, supra, at 321. Notwithstanding our suggestion that the board give reasons for denying an inmate's witness request, nowhere in Wolff or Baxter did we require the disciplinary board to explain why it denied the prisoner's...

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