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Alexander Contee Hall v. K. Allison

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


March 5, 2013

ALEXANDER CONTEE HALL,
PETITIONER,
v.
K. ALLISON, WARDEN,
RESPONDENT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles F. Eick United States Magistrate Judge

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

This Report and Recommendation is submitted to the Honorable Margaret M. Morrow, United States District Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. section 636 and General Order 05-07 of the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

FEDERAL PROCEEDINGS

Petitioner filed a "Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus By a Person in State Custody" on November 2, 2012, consisting of a form Petition to which is attached a handwritten petition and a memorandum of points and authorities ("Pet. Mem."). The Petition challenges Petitioner's July 25, 2010 prison disciplinary conviction for "battery on inmate during riot with weapon causing serious injury." Respondent filed an Answer on December 28, 2012. Petitioner filed a Reply on February 22, 2013.

STATE PROCEEDINGS

On June 9, 2010, Correctional Officer Becerra authored a Rules Violation Report charging Petitioner with "battery on inmate during riot with weapon causing serious injury," allegedly occurring on May 27, 2010 (Petition, first exhibit; Respondent's Lodged Exhibit 2). After a hearing on July 25, 2010, a hearing officer found Petitioner guilty and assessed a 360-day credit loss and ten days' loss of yard privileges (Petition, first exhibit; Respondent's Lodged Exhibit 2).

Petitioner submitted an administrative appeal, which was denied at the Director's Level on March 11, 2011 (Respondent's Lodged Exhibit 3). Petitioner filed a habeas corpus petition in the Kings County Superior Court on October 4, 2011, which that court transferred to the Imperial County Superior Court on December 5, 2011 (Respondent's Lodged Exhibit 5). On January 11, 2012, the Imperial County Superior Court denied the petition (Respondent's Lodged Exhibit 6).

Petitioner filed a habeas corpus petition in the California Court of Appeal, which that court denied in a reasoned decision on March 29, 2012 (Respondent's Lodged Exhibits 7, 8). Petitioner filed a habeas corpus petition in the California Supreme Court on May 2, 2012, which that court denied summarily on August 8, 2012 (Respondent's Lodged Exhibits 9, 10).

FACTS

In the Rules Violation Report, Officer Becerra alleged that he saw Petitioner and inmates Askew, Powell and Horton "kicking and striking with their clenched fist [sic] inmate ZUSSA . . . who was on his back on the ground attempting to defend himself" (Respondent's Lodged Exhibit 2, p. 0005). The assault allegedly occurred on the yard #1 basketball court (id.). Becerra also allegedly saw three other inmates fighting at the same time (id.). Becerra stated that, after staff sprayed the inmates with oleoresin capsicum spray, the inmates responded to orders to get down (id.). Becerra allegedly handcuffed Petitioner and performed a clothed body search, which revealed no contraband (id.). Becerra reported that a medical evaluation determined that Zussa sustained a concussion, and that some of the injuries of Zussa and another alleged assault victim assertedly were consistent with the use of inmate-manufactured weapons (id.).

At the administrative hearing, Petitioner claimed he had been misidentified by Officer Becerra (id., p. 0007). Petitioner admitted that he had been on the yard #1 basketball court on the day of the incident, but claimed he was returning to his housing unit when the altercation took place (id.). Referencing photographs of Petitioner assertedly taken after the incident, the hearing officer asked Petitioner to explain allegedly visible tears on Petitioner's sweatshirt (id.). Petitioner responded: "I don't see a tear." (id.).

Inmate Zussa testified that he did not see Petitioner and that Petitioner did not assault Zussa (id.). Asked how Zussa knew this, he stated: "Earlier in the day, [Petitioner] and I were talking and we shook hands and I didn't see him during the incident" (id.). Asked whether Zussa's vision was so impaired during the incident as to render him unable to identify his assailant, Zussa stated: "No, I am fine and I didn't lose consciousness." (id.).

Officer Becerra testified that, on the day of the incident, Becerra observed Petitioner and three other inmates assaulting Zussa (id., p. 0008). Becerra said he saw Petitioner "physically assaulting" Zussa (id.). Becerra said he had not seen Petitioner and Zussa conversing earlier in the day, but said he had seen Petitioner "walking and talking with the three other participants" (id.).

The hearing officer found Petitioner guilty based on:

1. Officer Becerra's Rules Violation Report;

2. Information in an Incident Package, including a report by Correctional Officer Duarte which stated that, after the scene had been secured, Duarte placed evidence markers near Petitioner, near Zussa (who assertedly was bleeding from the facial area), and near two inmate-manufactured weapons and a razor blade;*fn1

3. Information in a physician's "information chrono" documenting Zussa's injuries;

4. Photographs of Petitioner in the Incident Package purportedly showing a tear in the sweatshirt Petitioner was wearing;

5. Officer Becerra's testimony; and

6. A document recording that Zussa suffered head injuries and multiple puncture wounds and lacerations consistent with injuries caused by the same type of inmate-manufactured weapons recovered by staff at the incident site (id., pp. 0008-0009).

The hearing officer found Petitioner conspired with the other inmates to commit the battery, had knowledge of the weapons prior to the battery, and participated in the assault (id., p. 0009).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A federal court may not grant an application for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in state custody with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim: (1) "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States"; or (2) "resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24-26 (2002); Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-09 (2000).

"Clearly established Federal law" refers to the governing legal principle or principles set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision on the merits. Greene v. Fisher, 132 S. Ct. 38, 44 (2011); Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71-72 (2003). A state court's decision is "contrary to" clearly established Federal law if: (1) it applies a rule that contradicts governing Supreme Court law; or (2) it "confronts a set of facts. . . materially indistinguishable" from a decision of the Supreme Court but reaches a different result. See Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. at 8 (citation omitted); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. at 405-06.

Under the "unreasonable application prong" of section 2254(d)(1), a federal court may grant habeas relief "based on the application of a governing legal principle to a set of facts different from those of the case in which the principle was announced." Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. at 76 (citation omitted); see also Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. at 24-26 (state court decision "involves an unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law if it identifies the correct governing Supreme Court law but unreasonably applies the law to the facts). A state court's decision "involves an unreasonable application of [Supreme Court] precedent if the state court either unreasonably extends a legal principle from [Supreme Court] precedent to a new context where it should not apply, or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. at 407 (citation omitted).

"In order for a federal court to find a state court's application of [Supreme Court] precedent 'unreasonable,' the state court's decision must have been more than incorrect or erroneous." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003) (citation omitted). "The state court's application must have been 'objectively unreasonable.'" Id. at 520-21 (citation omitted); see also Waddington v. Sarausad, 555 U.S. 179, 190 (2009); Davis v. Woodford, 384 F.3d 628, 637-38 (9th Cir. 2004), cert. dism'd, 545 U.S. 1165 (2005). "Under § 2254(d), a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported, . . . or could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of this Court." Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011). This is "the only question that matters under § 2254(d)(1)." Id. (citation and internal quotations omitted). Habeas relief may not issue unless "there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with [the United States Supreme Court's] precedents." Id. at 786-87 ("As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.").

In applying these standards, the Court looks to the last reasoned state court decision. See Delgadillo v. Woodford, 527 F.3d 919, 925 (9th Cir. 2008). Where a state court rejects a federal claim presented to it without expressly addressing the claim, a federal habeas court generally must presume that the state court decided the claim on the merits. Johnson v. Williams, U.S. , 2013 WL 610199, at *7 (Feb. 20, 2013). Where no reasoned decision exists, as where the state court summarily denies a claim, "[a] habeas court must determine what arguments or theories . . . could have supported the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of this Court." Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S. Ct. 1388, 1403 (2011) (citation, quotations and brackets omitted).

DISCUSSION

Petitioner contends the evidence did not suffice to support his disciplinary conviction because the hearing officer allegedly "relied without explanation on evidence directly undermined by evidence presented by the petitioner" (Pet. Mem., p. ii). Petitioner points out that the victim, Zussa, testified that Petitioner was not one of the assailants (Pet. Mem., p. 1). According to Petitioner, who is Black, Zussa is a white inmate who purportedly would gain no benefit from minimizing or misrepresenting Petitioner's alleged involvement in the incident (id.). The Court of Appeal rejected Petitioner's contentions, ruling that the evidence sufficed to meet the "some evidence" standard of Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Inst., Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 457 (1985) (Respondent's Lodgment 8).

Due process in a prison disciplinary hearing requires that there be "some evidence" to support the findings made. Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Inst., Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. at 457. Under this standard, the Court does not examine the entire record, make an independent assessment of the credibility of witnesses, or weigh the evidence. Bruce v. Ylst, 351 F.3d 1283, 1287 (9th Cir. 2003). Rather, "the relevant question is whether there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion." Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Inst., Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. at 455-56; Bruce v. Ylst, 351 F.3d at 1287. Direct evidence is not required, and evidence that is "meager" or indirect may suffice. Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Inst., Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. at 456-57.

The Court of Appeal's determination that the "some evidence" standard was satisfied in Petitioner's case was not unreasonable. According to Officer Becerra's testimony and Rules Violation Report, Petitioner participated in the assault on Zussa. The hearing officer believed this evidence, and disbelieved the contrary evidence. This Court cannot second-guess the hearing officer's credibility determinations. See Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Inst., Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. at 455-56; Harrison v. Marshall, 2010 WL 5422540, at *12 (C.D. Cal. July 28, 2010), adopted, 2010 WL 5452089 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 28, 2010) ("it is not the function of this Court to second guess the hearing officer's credibility determination."). The evidence before the hearing officer sufficed to constitute "some evidence" to support Petitioner's disciplinary conviction. See Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Inst., Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. at 447-48, 456-57 (reporting officer's report and testimony that he heard a voice, opened a door, discovered a bleeding inmate, and saw inmates jogging away together sufficient, although the accused inmates denied involvement and the victim gave a written statement saying the inmates had not caused his injuries); Bostic v. Carlson, 884 F.2d 1267, 1271 (9th Cir. 1989) ("The reporting officer's testimony constituted sufficient evidence to support the finding of guilty"); see also Peralta v. Woodford, 2005 WL 1398524, at *5 (E.D. Cal.

June 13, 2005), adopted, 2005 WL 2615357 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 14, 2005) (statements of prison officials in rules violation report and supplemental report sufficient).

Petitioner contends the hearing officer relied on "false" evidence that Petitioner's sweatshirt was torn (see Reply, p. 2).

Yet, Petitioner does not deny that he was the person in the photograph which the hearing officer evidently believed showed a torn sweatshirt. Petitioner has not produced a copy of any photograph proving that Petitioner's sweatshirt had no tears.*fn2 Petitioner also argues that there was no evidence showing a connection between any tear in the sweatshirt and Petitioner's alleged participation in the incident (Reply, p. 3). However, the hearing officer was entitled reasonably to infer that the alleged tears were the result of the assault on Zussa. In any event, as indicated above, Officer Becerra's account of the incident provided the requisite "some evidence," regardless of whether Petitioner's sweatshirt was torn.

Petitioner also argues that the hearing officer failed to provide a written summary explaining why the hearing officer purportedly "disregarded" the allegedly exculpatory evidence (id., p. 2). Petitioner raised this argument in his habeas petition filed in the Court of Appeal (Respondent's Lodgment, p. 0038), but the Court of Appeal did not address the argument expressly in the Court's decision. Under Johnson v. Williams, U.S. , 2013 WL 610199, at *7, this Court presumes that the Court of Appeal decided the claim on the merits.*fn3

Where a prison disciplinary hearing may result in the loss of good time credits, Due Process requires, among other things, a written statement by the factfinder of the evidence relied on and the reasons for the disciplinary action. Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Institution, Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. at 455 (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 563-67 (1974)). Petitioner relies on Meeks v. McBride, 81 F.3d 717 (7th Cir. 1996), for the further proposition that where a prisoner produces exculpatory evidence directly undermining the reliability of the evidence in the record pointing to guilt, the prisoner "is entitled to an explanation of why the [decisionmaker] disregarded the exculpatory evidence and refused to find it persuasive." Id. at 720 (citations omitted) (see Pet.

Mem., pp. 1-2). No United States Supreme Court case clearly establishes this latter proposition, however, so the failure to give a Meeks v. McBride-type explanation cannot form the basis for federal habeas relief in this case. Even assuming arguendo that the federal Constitution requires a Meeks v. McBride-type explanation, habeas relief would still be unavailable herein. The hearing officer described the evidence upon which the officer based the decision. The hearing officer explained that he credited Becerra's account of the incident (expressly noting Petitioner's denial that his sweatshirt was torn as the photograph allegedly depicted). The hearing officer thereby rejected (for the reasons stated) any evidence purporting to contradict Becerra's credible account. At a minimum, therefore, it was not unreasonable for the state court to conclude that Petitioner received the written statement of reasons mandated by the federal Constitution.*fn4

For the foregoing reasons, the Court of Appeal's rejection of Petitioner's claims was not contrary to, or an objectively unreasonable application of, any clearly established Federal law as determined by the United States Supreme Court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 785-87 (2011). Therefore, Petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief.

RECOMMENDATION

For the foregoing reasons, IT IS RECOMMENDED that the Court issue an Order: (1) approving and adopting this Report and Recommendation; and (2) directing that Judgment be entered denying and dismissing the Petition with prejudice.

NOTICE

Reports and Recommendations are not appealable to the Court of Appeals, but may be subject to the right of any party to file objections as provided in the Local Rules Governing the Duties of Magistrate Judges and review by the District Judge whose initials appear in the docket number. No notice of appeal pursuant to the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure should be filed until entry of the judgment of the District Court.

If the District Judge enters judgment adverse to Petitioner, the District Judge will, at the same time, issue or deny a certificate of appealability. Within twenty (20) days of the filing of this Report and Recommendation, the parties may file written arguments regarding whether a certificate of appealability should issue.


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