Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion from July 6

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Pittman v. Gomez

Leading up to this habeas petition, Darnell Pittman was an inmate at the Administrative Maximum Facility of the United States Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. In 2018, prison officials charged him with possession of a hazardous tool, a violation of prison rules. This tool was a razor blade concealed in a textbook labeled “Property of Darnell Pittman” in black permanent marker. 

Officer Megan Boze reported that she found the razor blade while searching Pittman’s cell while he was undergoing questioning for an unrelated investigation. The Unit Disciplinary Committee conducted a hearing at which Pittman denied the charge, stating: “This is false—bogus[.] My property was mishandled, and I do not own the book that is referenced.” 

The UDC referred the matter to a disciplinary hearing officer for further hearing. Pittman requested a staff representative, Recreation Specialist James Dahlquist, to assist him before the DHO. On his witness list, Pittman requested review of D-Unit and Receiving and Discharge camera footage in addition to the officers who found abandoned books in the unit containing Pittman’s cell. He said the footage would show the book was not removed from his cell or ever in his possession.

The DHO held a disciplinary hearing over two days. On the first hearing date, the DHO continued the proceedings to give Dahlquist more time to attempt to fulfill Pittman’s requests. Between the hearings, the DHO emailed Boze asking for clarification regarding the books she found. According to Boze, she removed three books from the hallway outside of Pittman’s cell belonging to the ADX library and chapel. The macroeconomics book set off the metal detectors and the blade was discovered when the book was put through an x-ray machine. Boze said she discovered several cards with precise cuts in the paper that could only be made with a sharp cutting instrument. 

Ultimately, Dahlquist did not obtain, and the DHO did not review, any surveillance camera footage. The DHO resumed the hearing, at which time she considered the incident report, the email exchange, photographs of the macroeconomics textbook and razor blade and a seven-page, handwritten document listing 31 defensive case points that Pittman submitted. The DHO determined that Pittman was guilty of the violation and imposed a sanction including the loss of 31 days of good time credit.  

Pittman challenged the conviction, which a magistrate judge denied without a hearing, and then filed a notice of appeal with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, he argued it was unreasonable for the DHO to render a decision without reviewing the video footage he requested and that the DHO was not impartial because of her email exchange with Boze before the hearing

According to the court, “[w]here a prison disciplinary hearing may result in the loss of good time credits… the inmate must receive… an opportunity, when consistent with institutional safety and correctional goals, to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in his defense… In addition, the decision must be supported by some evidence.”

The court concluded that evidence supporting the charge included Boze’s report as well as photographs of the textbook and razor blade. Pittman’s defense presented various scenarios in which Boze or other prison officials might have planted the razor, mixed up the textbook found inside his cell with other books found outside his cell or otherwise mishandled his property in some way, but the DHO was not obligated to credit these conjectures over Boze’s account.

The court rejected Pittman’s first argument because his various requests for video evidence would conflict with institutional safety and correctional goals. The DHO attested that “[Pittman’s] requests would have required [her] to review three calendar days of video from numerous locations in the ADX,” such that the requested review “would have taken so much time that it would have prevented [her] from fulfilling [her] duties as a DHO in other cases.”

The 10th Circuit also rejected Pittman’s second argument on the grounds that while ex parte communications are improper on the part of judges in criminal trials, the same constraints do not apply in prison disciplinary proceedings. Pittman did not set forth a “substantial countervailing reason” to overcome the presumption of honesty and integrity on the part of the DHO and so he did not establish a due process violation in his disciplinary proceedings.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court. 

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