The Kentucky Court of Appeals recently issued a decision addressing the type of evidence that should be presented in a jail disciplinary proceeding. In Lawless v. Conover, 2015-CA-000039-MR, 2016 WL 2981580 (Ky. Ct. App. May 20, 2016), an inmate disputed an Adjustment Officer’s (AO) finding that she was guilty of inflicting an injury on a correctional officer. The inmate had requested the AO to view the surveillance camera footage of the incident, because she believed the video supported her version of the events. Despite finding the inmate guilty of the charge, the AO made no mention of the surveillance footage in her written determination. The inmate subsequently filed suit, challenging the validity of the disciplinary proceeding.
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint. In support of that motion, they submitted an affidavit from the AO which stated that, although she had reviewed the video, her finding was not based on it. The case was dismissed by the trial court, as the Court found the plaintiff had “received due process and there is some evidence in the record to support the findings of the AO.”
The Court of Appeals would ultimately reverse the trial court’s dismissal, noting that “specific holdings of the U.S. Supreme Court necessitate particular treatment of an inmate’s request that the prison tribunal consider exculpatory evidence.” Citing Ramirez v. Nietzel, 424 S.W.3d 911 (Ky. 2014), the Court noted that an adjustment officer conducting a hearing must, if requested by an inmate, review security footage and consider its weight in making a finding of guilt or innocence. Additionally, the hearing officer must indicate in his or her written statement that they undertook a review of the video evidence and state whether it confirms or contradicts the inmate’s version of events. The Court also noted the inmate should have been provided access to the surveillance footage or be given a legitimate explanation as to why she was not. Moreover, the surveillance footage should have been reviewed by the circuit court.
Perhaps most importantly, the Court declared “it is the responsibility of the state agency (here, the Department of Corrections) to prepare a record for filing with the circuit court before that court declares the prisoner’s rights.” In other words, the Department of Corrections was required to submit the surveillance footage to the Court. For these reasons, the lower court’s dismissal of the inmate’s lawsuit was reversed, and the Department of Corrections was required to make the surveillance video available for the circuit court’s consideration.
Officials in Kentucky responsible for inmate discipline would be well served to take note of this important opinion. For any questions about the implications of the Lawless or Ramirez decisions or evidentiary issues related to jail discipline in general, please contact the attorneys at Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder Co., L.P.A.
Curtis M. Graham