7th Circuit: Prisoner denied due process

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a prisoner could not defend the possession of heroin charge against him and thus remanded his case for rehearing.

Officers at Pendleton Correctional Facility claimed they found heroin in Curtis Ellison’s cell and stripped him of 90 days of good time credit. A photo of the heroin, however, shows it was discovered in a cell on the other side of the building from him. Two guards Ellison was unfamiliar with conducted the search. Ellison’s correctional officer told him another officer had incorrectly attributed the heroin to him and requested the officers who conducted the search and the officer who made the mistake show up at Ellison’s hearing.

However, when the day for the hearing came, no witnesses showed up. Ellison said he never did drugs and said the heroin was found in a different cell. However, the hearing officer found him guilty. In District Court, Ellison said he was denied due process but the court thought he was challenging just the sufficiency of the evidence and ruled against him.

The 7th Circuit said Ellison’s petition was read too narrowly, and the court should have included his due process claim as well. It said when a prisoner is denied access to evidence necessary to defend against a charge, the claim is one of due process and not sufficiency of the evidence.

The officers should have been present at Ellison’s hearing, and the judge should have looked at the video of the search more closely, the Circuit Court held. Ellison is entitled to a new disciplinary hearing.

The case is Curtis T. Ellison v. Dushan Zatecky, 15-1884.

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