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Coleman v. Hill

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 28, 2016

RICK HILL, Respondent.



         I. Introduction

         Petitioner is a state prisoner, proceeding without counsel, with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges a 2011 prison disciplinary conviction for distributing a controlled substance in violation of California Code of Regulations Title 15, § 3016(d). Petitioner was assessed a 180 days credit loss.

         Petitioner raises the following claims challenging the prison disciplinary conviction: 1) denial of right to call witnesses; 2) the hearing officer was biased; 3) denial of right to an investigative employee; 4) the hearing officer wrongly denied petitioner’s request to postpone the hearing; and 5) the hearing officer wrongly permitted staff witnesses to remain in the hearing room.

         After carefully considering the record, the undersigned recommends that the petition be denied.

         II. Standards for a Writ of Habeas Corpus

         Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody under a judgment of a state court can be granted only for violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). A federal writ is not available for alleged error in the interpretation or application of state law. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); Park v. California, 202 F.3d 1146, 1149 (9th Cir. 2000).

         Federal habeas corpus relief is not available for any claim decided on the merits in state court proceedings unless the state court’s 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).

         Under section 2254(d)(1), a state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established United States Supreme Court precedents if it applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in Supreme Court cases, or if it confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of the Supreme Court and nevertheless arrives at different result. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 7 (2002) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)).

         Under the “unreasonable application” clause of section 2254(d)(1), a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court’s decisions, but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner’s case. Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. A federal habeas court “may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.” Id. at 412; see also Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003) (it is “not enough that a federal habeas court, in its independent review of the legal question, is left with a ‘firm conviction’ that the state court was ‘erroneous.’”) (internal citations omitted). “A state court’s determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as ‘fairminded jurists could disagree’ on the correctness of the state court’s decision.” Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011).

         The court looks to the last reasoned state court decision as the basis for the state court judgment. Avila v. Galaza, 297 F.3d 911, 918 (9th Cir. 2002). If there is no reasoned decision, “and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.” Harrington, 131 S.Ct. at 784-85. That presumption may be overcome by a showing that “there is reason to think some other explanation for the state court’s decision is more likely.” Id. at 785 (citing Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991)).

         “When a state court rejects a federal claim without expressly addressing that claim, a federal habeas court must presume that the federal claim was adjudicated on the merits - but that presumption can in some limited circumstances be rebutted.” Johnson v. Williams, 133 S.Ct. 1088, 1096 (Feb. 20, 2013). “When the evidence leads very clearly to the conclusion that a federal claim was inadvertently overlooked in state court, § 2254(d) entitles the prisoner to” de novo review of the claim. Id., at 1097.

         Where the state court reaches a decision on the merits but provides no reasoning to support its conclusion, the federal court conducts an independent review of the record. “Independent review of the record is not de novo review of the constitutional issue, but rather, the only method by which we can determine whether a silent state court decision is objectively unreasonable.” Himes v. Thompson, 336 F.3d 848, 853 (9th Cir. 2003). Where no reasoned decision is available, the habeas petitioner has the burden of “showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief.” Harrington, 131 S.Ct. at 784. “[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.” Id. at 786.

         III. Background

         Although petitioner does not raise a claim alleging insufficient evidence to support his disciplinary conviction, the undersigned herein sets forth the relevant portions of the disciplinary report to put petitioner’s claims in context.

         The disciplinary report contains the following statement by reporting Officer Rhoads:

On Saturday, August 14, 2010, at approximately 1840 hours, while performing my duties as a Main yard Officer #3, post #361161, I was standing on the Main Yard when I observed Inmate COLEMAN, S. (BLA), followed and escorted by Officer S. Beem. I witnessed an unidentified Black inmate approach Inmate COLEMAN from the adjacent tables and shake hands with him. After inmate COLEMAN shook hands, I noticed Inmate COLEMAN still had a clenched fist, which based on that observation led me to believe that Inmate COLEMAN was holding something inside his clenched fist. Inmate COLEMAN put both of his hands back on the garbage container and continued pushing the cart along the basketball court towards the yard shack. I approached Inmate COLEMAN from my position on the other side of the basketball court, and when I was within speaking distance I ordered Inmate COLEMAN to stop and show me his hands. Inmate COLEMAN was reluctant in doing so and acted as if he did not hear my order. I ordered Inmate COLEMAN to step away from the cart and place his hands along the railing of the yard shack where I placed Inmate COLEMAN in hand cuffs. I asked Officer Beem to search the cart that Inmate COLEMAN was pushing. I told Officer Beem I believed inmate COLEMAN had possibly dropped something into the cart that he had earlier in his hand and was attempting to conceal. I took Inmate COLEMAN inside of the yard shack where I performed a clothed body search on him with negative results. Officer E. Mejia took Inmate COLEMAN and escorted him from the yard shack to the FSP Custody Complex. After conducting the search of the cart Officer Beem entered the yard shack with what appeared to be a small ball-shaped package of latex material from the package. I discovered a second layer of latex material. Then after removing the second layer of latex material from the package, I discovered a third inner layer of latex material. After removing the third layer of latex material, I discovered the package contained five (5) individually wrapped bindles of an unknown white, crystal-like substance. Officer Beem took the five (5) individual bindles, latex packing material and took it to the FSP Custody Complex to be processed into evidence. That concluded my involvement in this incident.

(ECF No 12-2 at 2.)

         The disciplinary report states that the bindles tested positive for methamphetamine. (Id. at 1.)

         The disciplinary report also contains the responses by Officers Beem and Rhoads to questions submitted by petitioner, asked on his behalf by Senior Hearing Officer (“SHO”) Darnell, who conducted the disciplinary hearing. The questions asked of Officer Beem are set forth herein:

Q1) Did you observe contraband on Inmate COLEMAN?
A1) No.
Q2) Did you observe Inmate COLEMAN drop anything in the trash cart?
A2) No.
Q3) What did Officer Rhoads tell you after he handcuffed Inmate COLEMAN?
A3) He said Inmate COLEMAN threw something over the edge of the cart, that’s where I found the drugs.
Q4) When did Rhoads ask you to search the trash cart?
A4) Simultaneously to the search of Inmate COLEMAN.
Q5) When Officer asked you to search the trash cart, were his exact words, “I think he put something in his mouth. I’m not sure, check the garbage cart on the top, he might have dropped something.” A5) The Senior Hearing Officer determined that this question is a “Leading Question, ” therefore, he did not present this question to Officer Beem.
Q6) Where did you find the contraband in the cart?
A6) On garbage bag at the bottom of the cart.
Q7) Did you observe Inmate COLEMAN shake anyone’s hand?
A7) No.
Q8) Did you see Inmate COLEMAN speak to anyone?
A8) No.
To: Warden, CHCF, P. O. Box 32050, Stockton, California 95213:
Q9) Can you repeat any conversation the two inmates might have had?
A9) The Senior Hearing Officer notes that the answer to this question was Question 8. Officer Beem did not see Inmate COLEMAN talk to anyone.
Q10) Did you know who initiated the contact with each other, as who called out to who or who walked over to who?
A10) The Senior Hearing Officer notes that the answer to this question was answer[ed] in Question 8. Officer Beem did not see Inmate COLEMAN talk to anyone.
Q11) Once you found the contraband did you stop searching the cart?
A11) I searched the whole cart and found no other contraband. I found the small bag of dope and figured that was what was dropped.

(Id. at 4.)

         The questions asked of Officer Rhoads are set forth herein:

Q1) Is your report accurate?
A1) Yes.
Q2) Did you see anything in the hands of either inmate before they shook hands?
A2) I watched Inmate COLEMAN push the cart without a clenched fist. After the handshake Inmate COLEMAN had a clenched fist.
Q3) Did you follow the unidentified inmate after the hand shake?
A3) No, my attention was on Inmate COLEMAN.
Q4) Did you or any other Officer make contact with the unidentified inmate?
A4) No, I did not. I am not aware of any other officer.
Q5) Was the unidentified inmate ever searched?
A5) Not to my knowledge, just Inmate COLEMAN.
Q6) In the report you indicated that you believe the unidentified black inmate received or delivered something to Inmate COLEMAN. Why wasn’t the unidentified inmate searched for definitive evidence?
A6) The Senior Hearing Officer determined that this is a leading question, therefore, the answer would be a speculation on Officer Rhoads part if he answer.
Q7) Is there any evidence that the unidentified inmate gave Inmate COLEMAN any contraband?
A7) I saw the physical contact occur where the inmates’ hands made contact and Inmate COLEMAN left with a closed fist.
Q8) Is there evidence that Inmate COLEMAN gave to the unidentified man anything?
A8) No.
Q9) Is the part of your report that says “Inmate COLEMAN passed or received what appeared to be contraband, ” just speculation unsupported by evidence?
A9) The Senior Hearing Officer deemed that this question was ...

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